The Help: A Book Review
I have read several bestsellers this year but none compare to the brilliant novel The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (this is her first novel).
The hotbed of the south
In Jackson Mississippi, 1962, most white families had colored domestic help. Racial segregation was pervasive in the whole south, but Jackson was particularly a hotbed of racism. John F. Kennedy was President and Martin Luther King Jr. was emerging onto the scene as a black leader advocating for racial equality.
The three voices of The Help
The Help is written in three voices. Two are negro maids, Minnie and Aibileen. The third one is a white, 20-something burgeoning journalist named Skeeter.
Minnie is a fiesty negro maid known for being the best cook in the county. She is always getting into trouble for her outspoken ways. Sometimes she can be spiteful when white people cross her. Thus, after her last firing, she retaliated by doing "the terrible awful." And it is terrible, and it is awful. But down under that tough exterior is a soft, vulnerable, wounded soul. Minnie is the mother of 4 and the wife of Leroy, a hard working, alcoholic who beats Minnie regularly.
Aibileen is a genteel, motherly, nurturing woman who has spent most of her adult life raising the children of her white employers. She works hard and has a tender heart for injustices, especially for the neglected 2 year old daughter of her current employer, Mae Mobley. Aibileen makes a concerted effort to tell Mae Mobley, whom she calls "Baby Girl," that she is "good", she is "kind" and she is "beautiful." As Baby Girl gets older, Aibileen tells her secret stories that will teach Mae Mobley that black is equal to white, they are just different. Aibileen has been grieving over the murder of her son a few years back. She knows something has changed in her. Aibileen and Minnie are best frinds.
Eugenia (Skeeter) Phelan, a very tall, thin, wild haired girl, has always wanted to be a writer. She lives with her mother and father, but from the day she was born, her mother criticized her about everything. Returning home from college with a journalism degree, she is hired by the Jackson Journal to write a measly little column called Miss Mryna, in which she provides household cleaning tips to readers who have written in. Skeeter knows nothing about cleaning. So she turns to Aibileen weekly to get answers to the cleaning questions that pour in. She is acquainted with Aibileen, through her employer Elizabeth Leefolt, a longtime friend.
The white employers of Jackson
Hilly Holbrook is the scoundrel you love to hate. She is a popular and prominent community women's leader who has the gift of persuasion by emotional manipulation and malicious slander. A raging bigot, passionately crusading for segregation, she sets out to get a law enacted so that white employers will be required to have separate bathrooms for their colored help, telling all confidently that "they" have strange diseases. She wields her manipulative wiles on friends and acquaintances with gossip, deception and lies, and decides for everyone, who's in and who's out in the ladie's societal circle.
Elizabeth Leefolt is Aibileen's employer, and close friend of Hilly and Skeeter. Elizabeth is married and has a daughter Mae Mobley, whom she has no inclination to love and nurture. It is Aiblineen's duty not only do the domestic duties, but to raise Mae Mobley. Elizabeth is led around by the nose by Hilly. When Hilly says jump, Elizabeth jumps. She has no mind of her own. Whatever Hilly believes, that's her stance too.
Celia Foote is an odd, secretive, blond bombshell, married to Johnny Foote, one time boyfriend of Hilly Holbrook. Celia grew up in an impoverished home. Never having learned many social skills, Celia tries to compensate by dressing provocatively and sometimes garishly. Her husband Johnny tries hard to connect her with local society women, but no one returns her calls. After Minnie gets fired and blacklisted for doing the "terrible awful" to her employer, Hilly Holbrook, Celia hires her, not knowing about Minnie's reputation. Celia hires Minnie with no plan to inform her husband, so she can learn how to cook. Celia, having been brought up in poverty, has no understanding of the relationship dynamics between white women and their negro maids. Right off the bat, she treats Minnie as a friend, and asks her to sit down and eat with her. Minnie is not comfortable with this at first, but eventually they form an unusual relationship.
An unusual alliance
An unusual alliance is formed between Aibileen, Minnie, and Skeeter, when Skeeter decides she wants to write an anonymous book of stories about negro maids in the south. She has been touched and deeply concerned about the way black domestic workers are treated. As a child, Skeeter was raised by a negro maid by the name of Constantine, the woman closest to her in her whole life. When Skeeter comes home from college, she is heartbroken to find that Constantine has been dismissed and moved away. Her mother will not disclose why.
It takes some time for Skeeter to get Aibileen to agree to meet and share her stories. But after a close friend's son is beaten and blinded by white men, she finally decides the stories need to be told. Skeeter has contacted Harper and Row and a woman there offers her a chance to try her hand at writing. She is interested in Skeeter's idea for the book. But she makes no promises.
The editor later decides that one story from one maid is not enough to draw readers. She wants at least a dozen or more women's stories. For months, Aibileen hounds her friends to submit to interviews with Skeeter to tell of their experiences, good and bad, as maids in the south. Minnie finally comes on board skeptically. After revered black leader is killed by white men, negro maids volunteer right and left. The interviews take place in Aibileen's modest house in the dead of night. Skeeter is doing this as a clandestine operation. No one but the help knows what she's doing. They know their is great risk for all. Imprisonment, beatings, or death could be their lot if found out. Hilly gets suspicious at one point that Skeeter may be secretly advocating for negro's and Skeeter is ostracized throughout the city, though there is no definitive evidence.
As an extra precaution, all the names in the book or fictious, and Skeeter places the setting in a made up southern city and state. When the book comes out though, Hilly has a hunch that the book is about the colored maids in Jackson, and she has a pretty good idea who wrote it.
The Help- provocative portrait of the south in the 60's
The Help is colorful, brazen, poignant, hilarious, disturbing, and heart-wrenching. For readers who know little about the racial conflicts and culture in the south in the 1960's, The Help vividly illustrates the bitter realities of the volatile racial tension, and the savage bigotry and persecution that played out in daily life in the south. Readers will laugh at the clever volleys of payback between characters, recoil at the abhorrent cruelty of the white toward the blacks, and ache for the unloved, abused, and rejected.
The rest Is up to you
The rest is up to you if you want to find out what the "terrible awful" is, and what becomes of Hilly's suspicions. The Help is a must read and will leave and indelible mark on your heart.
The Movie is as Good as the Book
© 2011 Lori Colbo