Monday, October 11, 2010

Kathryn Stockett: The Help

**This guest post was contributed by Bookwyrm, an literature devotee who will be joining Worthy of Note as a regular co-author. Look for more reviews from her in the coming months!**

The Civil War was fought in the 1860s, right? Well, maybe it was the ‘60s, but Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help suggests that it was the 1960s. The book tracks the stories of three women—two black, one white—trying to make a living and do the right thing in the time of the Civil Rights movement. But their war is not fought on the front lines in Washington D.C. They bring the battle home, to the working relationship of black domestic servants with their white employers. This book is the story of an alliance between these women to treat people as people, no matter their color.

The winds of change are blowing in 1962. Rosa Parks has refused to budge on a bus, and Martin Luther King, Jr., is on the march to D.C. But in Jackson, Mississippi, there is an equally strong push to keep things the way they’ve always been. White women get married, set out the family silver on the table, and hire black maids like second-class citizens to clean their houses and raise their children. The Help gets inside their parlors and segregated bathrooms to find out what it was like.

Aibileen is a black woman of mature years. Employed as a maid all her life, her favorite part of the work is taking care of her employers’ children. She has raised 17 babies in her life, but none for more than a few years. She makes a point to resign her work at the time when the children come to realize the divide between black and white—when they no longer see her as a person. At the start of the book, she is caring for Mae Mobley, her 17th white child, and she determines that this little girl is going to be different.

Minny is Aibileen’s best friend: younger, sassier, and with five children and an alcoholic husband to support on her working salary. Her sharp tongue has gotten her fired more times than she can count, but she, too, has a story to tell. Working as a maid since she was a teenager, Minny learned from her mama how to clean a house and make a good caramel cake. But when she sees something wrong, she wants to say something about it, and there isn’t room for that attitude in Jackson.

Miss Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is twenty-three years old and a college graduate: a rare position for a woman in 1962 Mississippi. Her mother is afraid that her brains will ruin her chances of ever catching a man, but all Skeeter cares about is writing. Hairspray, clinking teacups, and catty society gossip make her long to get out of Jackson and be an editor in New York City. But for a single white woman with no independent income, that dream seems out of reach.

That is, until she starts talking to Aibileen and Minny and realizes that these women have stories to tell. She starts waking up to their world: a black man is shot at his home for leading an activism movement. Aibileen’s son is killed in a preventable accident due to white neglect. Black maids are imprisoned on a white woman’s word if they know too much. Yet the entire next generation of Jackson society is being raised by women like Minny and Aibileen, who have learned to keep their mouths shut or lose their futures. It’s time somebody said something about it. But Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny have everything to lose. Skeeter has to decide whether to let herself be carried along by the status quo or stop and stand against it.

Although the themes of this book hit hard and close to home, its vibrant detail makes it engaging and endlessly readable. Stockett writes about the South with a familiarity that only a native daughter could capture. I could feel the sticky heat, smell the fried chicken cooking, and watch the okra growing in Aibileen’s garden. Their world is drawn in such distinct colors that there is no way it could be anything but real. It sweeps away the Leave It to Beaver façade of the late 50s-early 60s and dives deep into what was really going on in the ballrooms and tennis clubs and screened-in porches of the South during the Civil Rights Movement.

In the epilogue, Stockett explains that her vivid descriptions come from firsthand experience. She grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and was raised by a black maid named Demetrie. While no novel is a verbatim record of experiences, Stockett lets the tenderness of that relationship spill over into the personalities of the many maids in the book. They are captured like portraits done with a fine pen, free of generalizations and stereotypes. They are people so real you could send them a Christmas card.

This is a story about deciding whether to do what’s comfortable or what’s right. It doesn’t disguise the consequences: brave people don’t escape from suffering in this book. In fact, brave people are often those who suffer most, at least in the short run. But The Help made me feel almost like a visitor from the future, because now I can see the difference made by people who chose to go against their entire culture and treat all people like people.

**Bookwyrm is a bibliophile born in the wrong century. A native Californian, she is pursuing an English major at Seattle Pacific University. Her current job titles include editor, reporter, novelist, and freelance writer. When she’s not at work on a children’s novel or her senior thesis, she enjoys cooking, hiking, Irish music, old bookstores, and collecting technicolor socks.**

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating and descriptive book review--thank you for motivating people to read The Help. Keep reading and writing!