THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

Book Quote:

“I reckon I know pretty well what would happen if the white ladies found out we was writing about them, telling the truth a what they really like. Womens, they ain’t like men. A woman ain’t gone beat you with a stick…..No, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky (JUL 31, 2009)

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help opens in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. The story is told by three narrators: Aibileen, a kindhearted maid in her fifties, Miss Skeeter Phelan, an ungainly twenty-three year old who longs to be a writer, and Minny, another maid who cooks and bakes like a dream but can’t seem to keep her opinions to herself. Aibileen works for Mrs. Leefolt, a skinny and thoughtless woman who treats her baby, Mae Mobley, with indifference. Aibileen tries to make up for the mother’s apathy by affectionately fussing over Mae. Skeeter is a college graduate, but her mother’s main concern is finding a suitable Southern gentleman to take her tall and frizzy-haired daughter off her hands. Minny has a bunch of kids and an abusive husband. She has lost a number of jobs because of her penchant for backtalk. She finally lands a position with Celia Foote, a naïve and friendless woman from a poor background who wears tacky clothes and is shunned by her disapproving neighbors.

Change is in the air. Although segregation is still firmly entrenched in Jackson, there are stirrings of rebellion. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. are household names and although all of the black maids desperately need to work in order to pay their bills, they secretly resent having to defer to their patronizing and hypocritical bosses. When Skeeter embarks on a project to interview the maids and record their stories for a book that she hopes will launch her career, she is only vaguely aware that she is detonating a time bomb that could blow up in all of their faces.

The author, who was born and raised in Jackson, knows her subject intimately. She captures the stifling atmosphere of a place in which a culture of racism is passed on from generation to generation. It is taken for granted that black people must use separate toilets, restaurants, and even libraries. Walking through the streets of Jackson, one would never know that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and that the south lost the Civil War.

The voices of the maids come through loud and clear and they are the book’s crown jewels. Although “the help” may not feel free to speak publicly, they notice everything. Using dialect effectively, Stockett captures Aibileen’s horror when Miss Leefolt recoils at her newborn baby. The maid can’t help but notice that her mistress “look terrified a her own child. ‘What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I stop it [from crying]?’ It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation.” Throughout the novel, there are scenes of great poignancy in which the maids dote on the white children in their care as if they were their own, support one another through times of sorrow, and thank the Lord for the gifts that He has bestowed on them. They stand stoically, listening to themselves being referred to disparagingly in the third person as if they were not within earshot. There are also many passages of great hilarity in which the narrators reveal thoughts and feelings that they would never dare utter out loud.

The female characters are beautifully defined, including the imperious, ignorant, and nasty Miss Hilly, who makes such outrageous statements as, “Everybody knows they [black people] carry different kinds of diseases than we do,” and therefore should not share bathroom facilities with white people. She declares, “I will do whatever I have to do to protect our town.” Skeeter is a maverick who wants to transform the hidebound traditions of her hometown. Minny is a caring mother who can be tough and angry, but who allows herself to be mistreated by her no-good spouse, Leroy. Aibileen is highly intelligent and intuitive, and it is only with her help that Skeeter gets her controversial project off the ground. The book’s prime weakness is that the male characters, for the most part, hover in the background and serve as little more than window dressing. The few men who have speaking parts are either clueless, obnoxious, drunk, or all of the above.

In her afterword, the author admits that no one can capture exactly what it was like to live in the Deep South in 1962, but she insists that “trying to understand is vital to our humanity.” The Help takes a step in that direction. In this involving work of historical fiction, Stockett gives twenty-first century readers an opportunity to imagine what it was like to walk in the shoes of those disenfranchised individuals whose backbreaking labor made it possible for southern white families to live a life of ease. The author also points out that, in some cases, a bond of affection grew to exist between certain maids and “their families” that lasted for many years. Even in a society poisoned by intolerance, occasionally love finds a way of penetrating the bigotry. Skeeter thinks to herself at the end of the book that a black and white woman should not automatically view one another with suspicion and resentment: “We are just two people. Not that much separates us.” This is a lesson that can never be repeated often enough.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 7,393 readers
PUBLISHER: Putnam Adult; 1 edition (February 10, 2009)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Kathryn Stockett
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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July 1, 2009 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Class - Race - Gender, Debut Novel, Facing History, Reading Guide, US South

One Response

  1. MFadmin - July 4, 2009

    Eleanor, thanks so much for bringing this book to my attention. Unbelievable that I should not have heard of it before your review, yet amazon readers give it an average of 5 stars… very rare that well over 400 readers should share the same opinion of a book! That makes it interesting. But your review and enthusiasm for the book has me truly intrigued. So this is another book added to my Kindle e-reader….

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