Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"The Help" by Kathryn Stockett

Summary: Taking place in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, The Help follows three women: Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter.  Aibileen is a black maid who has spent her life raising white children; she cares for her newest charge, two-year-old Mae Mobley, but she knows she plans to move on when Mae Mobley is old enough to be just like her racist uncaring mother.  Minny is also a maid, but despite being the best cook in the area, she has a hard time finding a job because she's known for "sassing" her employers.  Skeeter is a young white woman just out of college; she wants to be a writer, but there is little opportunity for her living at home in Jackson.  The novel alternates with each woman's perspective as the three join together for a secret--and potentially dangerous--project to address the complicated relationship of white women and their help.

Musings: I had been reluctant to start this book for awhile, primarily because I'm suspicious of super-popular books (ugh, I'm such a snob sometimes!) and I wasn't sure if I was ready to read about such a difficult period of history.  I suppose sometimes it's easier to read about oppression and mistreatment in my dystopian novels because the novels are, in the end, fantasy.  But the racism and segregation present in The Help is not only very true, it's so very recent (heck, my parents grew up in the '60s--my dad can remember when his high school was integrated), and that makes it all the more infuriating.

Nonetheless, The Help deserves all the praise is has received.  Each of the women comes fully alive through her narrative, and each is given a distinctive voice.  The three main characters are fully multi-dimensional and must deal with their conflicting feelings.  Aibileen can't stand her employer, Miss Leefolt, but despite her best efforts, she can't help but love Mae Mobley.  Minny may be known as a woman who speaks her mind, but she also puts up with her abusive alcoholic husband.  Skeeter wants to write something meaningful, but she also wants to have friends. The book details the women's cautious steps toward finding something more in their lives by standing up in the way they best can.  The book ends not with happy endings, but with hopeful beginnings.

There are clearly issues of privilege at play here--both within the book itself (Aibileen and Minny have a lot more to lose than Skeeter) and in the writing of the book.  After all, Stockett is a white woman writing about black women's lives.  Stockett does try to address this through the book's very content and through an afterword, but it's still something that played on my mind.

Nonetheless, I'd highly recommend the book for its strong characterization and ability to illustrate one complex view of the Jim Crow South.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

1 comment:

  1. Tia, I share your feelings about new releases that somehow take on a pop-culture existence. And since I don't have to always pick up the latest release, I only recently purchased The Help. I hope to get it read before the end of the summer. I'm a fan of historical fiction; and the age-old tales of our struggle are always of interest to me.