I really have 4 book reviews to do from my spring break reading fest – but since I only have time to write one this evening – then I must pick The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
This is the best contemporary fiction book I have read in a very long time. “The Help” refers to the expression that southern white women used to call what we might term: domestic household engineers. The story takes place in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. Need I say more. You can fully imagine the racial tension of this region of the United States 2 years prior to the start of the Civil Rights movement. I had just finished teaching Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird to my 9th grade class, and I found this book to be a lovely companion novel.
The story is told from 3 different points of view:
- Aibileen – a 50-ish year old back maid who has been hired as “the help” for the vast majority of her life. Abileen immediately endeared herself to me. She is kind, sweet, loving, selfless, and a prayer warrior (she has kept a prayer journal for decades and often prays 2 hours plus a day).
- Minnie is Aibileen’s best friend – yet you have never met two people more different. Minnie is a fiesty, strong-willed woman who was born several years ahead of her time. Minnie has a difficult time controlling her tongue – especially towards her white female employers. As you can imagine, she does not remain employed at any one location for very long.
- Miss Skeeter (aka – Eugenia Phelan ) is a recent college graduate who has just returned to the family’s cotton plantation. Skeeter is a writer and desperately wants to leave her southern roots for the hustle and bustle of New York City. By day, Skeeter writes a weekly column entitled Miss Myrna’s Weekly Cleaning Advice – which is somewhat ironic because Skeeter does not know the first thing about cleaning and must solicit the help of Aibileen to answer the question of the week. By night, however, Skeeter is writing a novel about the black women’s experience working for a white women. She has been counceled by a mentor in the NYC book publishing world to write about something that “disturbs her, particularly if it bothers no one else” and she is hoping that this might be her ticket to a writing career.
The book had me from the very first paragraph – told from Aibileen’s point of view:
Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care of white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.
Aibileen rarely calls Mae Mobley (doesn’t that just sound southern?!) by her given name, but instead refers to her as Baby Girl. Aibileen treats Baby Girl as if she is her very own daughter – which is far better than Mae Mobley’s own mother treats her (she is far too busy sewing to tend to the needs or attentions of her toddler). Aibileen even goes so far as to try to instill positive self-talk to this girl from a very young age: “You a smart girl. You a good girl.”
I think what I like best about the book is the absolutely amazing skill Stockett uses in writing dialogue. When I read the book, I feel like I am sitting there in the room with these ladies – just listening in on the coffee clutch conversation. Through dialogue and internal thoughts, we are given such in-depth character descriptions that I truly do expect to run into Aibileen – or Minnie – or Skeeter – walking down the streets of Jackson, MS and I when I do run into them, I would recognize them in a heartbeat.
While the theme of racial injustice is not one to be taken lightly, Stockett is deftly skilled at adding just the right amount of humor to make her characters lovable – while not sugar-coating the seriousness of the subject matter. At the heart of the controversy is the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, put forth by the junior league President, Hilly Holbrook. As endearing as Abiliene is to me, Hilly is someone that I hope I never meet – I absolutely loathe this self-serving, conceited, prejudiced woman (and such antagonistic feelings toward a character speaks volumes about the author’s talent at developing believable, relatable characters). This “initiative” is nothing more than a continuation of the abominable Jim Crowe laws of “separate but equal” that were still controlling much of the south’s municiple regulations. This topic alone is enough to get my blood boiling and I could wax on forever…..so I will stop now.
Suffice it to say — I absolutely LOVED this book and would whole-heartedly recommend it to any adult (there is some obscene language that may be objectionable to some of the YA audience). This book has been reviewed and recommended by so many other book bloggers out there, and I am so very grateful for your suggestion.