Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Help

This great novel by Kathryn Stockett introduces us to three incredible women: Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, Aibileen, and Minny, who despite their differences come together, at their own peril, to try to make a difference in the world around them. In "The Help", set in Jackson Mississippi during the time of the civil rights movement, Skeeter is a young woman fresh out of college, who comes back home eager to embark on her life. While her mother's fondest with for her is a husband and family, Skeeter's hopes and aspirations are to become an editor at Harper & Row Publishers in New York City. Aibileen and Minny are two black maids who have spent their life employed by some of the well-to do white families in town, including Skeeter's friends, caring for their children. Of the two, Aibileen is a serene and wise woman who loves the children she cares for, especially her current charge, Mae Mobley, and Minny is Aibileen's complete opposite, sassy and outspoken with her white employers, she's lost more than one job because of it.

When one of Skeeter's friends from the Junior League, Miss Hilly, decides to put forth a new initiative to have separate bathrooms created in each private residence for the colored maids, this triggers a greater social consciousness in Skeeter and after taking a job at the local paper writing a column on household advice, Skeeter reaches out to Aibileen for help in answering the questions and a tentative and fragile bond begins to form between these two women. Motivated by the memories of her own loving bond with the black maid who raised her, Constantine, Skeeter decides to write about the experiences of these black women and the white families they care for. The book becomes a compilation of interviews with 12 black maids sharing their stories of both daily struggle, but also in some instances of the love and compassion shared with the white families they're employed by. Of course, the names are changed and all the interviews are held in secret, because knowledge of the book endangered not only the black maids jobs but their very lives.

The book delves frankly, through the maids personal stories and through their eyes, with their every day fears of abuse from their white employers, their struggles for equality -- even with something as simple as sitting down to eat at the Woolworth counter, to the sad realization that the young children that they help raise and love will one day be their employers and possibly treat them the same as their parents.

I loved this book. It was insightful and moving as it dealt with the issue of racism from the different perspectives of these women. Each character is so well written that it leaps off the page. Even the side story of Miss Celia and Mister Johnny, Minny's employers, was both funny and touching. I highly recommend this book.