GP Putnam’s Sons (Penguin)
This was the book my mother-daughter book club chose for October.
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, looks like it would be a tedious read. Don’t let the size of this book fool you because you will devour it so quick it will seem like a novella.
The book takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s and follows debutantes Hilly, Elizabeth and Skeeter as well as the local maids in their town, most notably Minny and Aibileen. Hilly is the ringleader of the group and pretty much sets the tone for the behavior of her peers, including the way everyone treats their maids, known as “the help”. Aibileen is Elizabeth’s maid and her duties include caring for Elizabeth’s home, cooking and being the primary caregiver to Elizabeth’s young daughter Mae Mobely. Mae Mobley really captured my heart. She was described as being somewhat homely looking but was a sweet and affectionate child. Unfortunately, her love for her mother was constantly rebuffed, leaving Aibileen as her one truly maternal caregiver.
Meanwhile, Skeeter, although traveling in the same social circle as Hilly and Elizabeth, whom she considers her best friends, has a soft spot for the maids that her friends don’t share. She eventually forms a close bond with the maids in the story as she meets with them continuously in order to write a book focusing on the trials and tribulations that come with being a black woman and maid in Mississippi during a time when the social climate is threatening towards blacks, especially those speaking out against the white members of society. Integration and the presence of Martin Luther King jr are starting to come to the forefront, and people like Hilly are offering strong opposition to any type of integration. Because of the dangers that come along with openly speaking out against white, the maids in the story are hesitant to tell their stories, despite the fact that their identities will be hidden. Aibileen is the first to agree to the project–she yearns to tell her story, as do most of her friends. She is eventually able to convince Minny to join in, a feat which was nearly impossible.
Minny was one of my favorite characters in the story. She had so much sass and spunk and was able to hold her head high, despite not only her experiences as a maid, which were tenuous considering her track record for being sassy, but also regardless of the fact that she was stuck with an abusive husband. Minny was my favorite character to read about and I loved not only the way she treated Celia Foote, her current employer, once she came to understand who Celia really was and why she behaved the way she did, but also how she stood up to Hilly, who was so evil it was impossible to find any redeeming quality about her.
I think the most amazing part of this book is the fact that it is based on a history and a frame of mind that was occurring less than 50 years ago! The unbelievable cruelty that Minny, Aibileen and the other maids had to deal with simply because they were black seemed so barbaric but it was happening within my parent’s lifetimes. My grandparents could have employed black maids and treated them much the same way Hilly treated her maids. My parents could have grown up raised by black maids, who were forced to take on the role of parenting when the true parents were unwilling to raise their own children.
Growing up, I lived in three different homes, two of which had maids bathrooms. One was in the basement and the other was attached to a maids room off the kitchen. I never before gave thought to the presence of those bathrooms. In the case of the latter house, I knew all along those were maids quarters. I guess I didn’t see anything odd about it. Those homes were both built within the last 50-75 years. And I am not even from the south!
I think Stockett did an amazing job with The Help and I’m shocked that this is only her first novel. I can only imagine that there are more great things to come because she hit this one out of the park.
For further reading . . .
Obviously there are TONS of reviews on this book. If I didn’t list your review and you’d like me to, please leave a comment with a link to your post.