Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I had heard so much about this book from my friends that I was so excited to finally read it. It was the February selection for the Flower Memorial Library Book Club. As great a read as this was, it was exceptionally painful to remember the time and place in the history of our country that was so deplorable.

The Help takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Miss Skeeter has returned home from Ole Miss to begin a career as a writer/journalist and is one of the narrators of the novel. Aibileen Clark is a black woman, about 50 years old, who works for Elizabeth Leefolt, one of Skeeter's friends. Rounding out the trio of narrators is Minny, a young maid who has been fired from more than her share of jobs and who has a tough time with the self-control filter.

Skeeter lands a job with the local paper as an advice columnist for cleaning help - Dear Miss Myrna. Since she knows so little about the subject she enlists the aid of Aibileen for answering the tough questions. She becomes close to her through this collaboration and when it is suggested by a New York publisher that Skeeter write a longer piece she comes up with the idea of a series of interviews/stories of how the black maids are treated in the town. Aibileen agrees to help Skeeter and recruits some of the other "nigra" women who spend their lives waiting on the white families of the town. Through these interviews and the narration by the three, a picture is painted of a society that embraced bigoted and prejudicial beliefs and actions.

The reader is introduced to a plethora of characters -Celia Foote, a young white woman whose station is not much above the black women, white trash, trying so hard to please her husband and break into the "junior league" clique; Miss Hilly Holbrook, the equivalent of the social bully, who in a moment's notice can ruin anyone's life, but who gets her come-uppance when she is "treated" to Minny's chocolate pie; Stuart Worthington, the young man who would be a good match for Skeeter were it not for his superficiality; Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter's mother, overbearing, but wanting nothing but the best for her daughter; adorable Mae Mobley, the daughter of Elizabeth, who is nurtured by Aibileen and virtually ignored by her mother; and Constantine, Skeeter's beloved nanny who never really appears in the novel, but whose presence is felt dramatically.

In writing each of her narrator's chapters, Stockett captured voice and point of view so that the reader has no confusion who is telling the story. Although there are some anachronisms that detract from the narrative, the history portrayed is credible and real. We witness Medgar Evers murder, Martin Luther King's historic Washington speech and the sit-in at Woolworth's. The treatment of blacks in the novel and in the south was deplorable at the least. It is unbelievable that the white society entrusted the children to the black "help yet could not allow them to use a toilet in the house for fear the family might catch a disease.

Each character grows and changes in the book. Skeeter becomes confident and comfortable with whom she is. Minny channels her feisty nature into taking her life into her own hands. Celia realizes what is really important in life, and Aibileen courageously takes a chance on a new path in her life. This book is a page turner, full of poignant moments, tough situations, and a good dose of humor now and again. It ranks as one of my favorite novels and I would encourage anyone who hasn't read it to do so. I anxiously await Stockett's next novel with the hope that it is as good as her first.

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