The Help by Kathryn Stockett
(G.P.Putnam's Sons, ISBN 978-0-399-15534-5)
My dear readers, if you have been lucky enough to have always read this book, I am pretty sure you will agree with my take on this book. If you have not read this, Ms. Stockett's first novel, yet, then I think that I have a wonderful book to share with you, one I can give a wholehearted recommendation to.
The setting is Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960's, a place and a time that certainly brings to mind that famous song "The Times They Are A-Changin". But change is never easy and it's not going to be easy in this case and it is not without a price.
The story is told through the eyes of three women.First, we have Skeeter, the daughter of a fairly well-to-do cotton farmer and a recent graduate of Old Miss. Skeeter would like to be a writer, but before she has even started, she is a failure in the eyes of her very critical mother, because she did not come home from college with a fiance, which, in the eyes of all the women in her circle, is the only reason for a girl to go to college in the first place.
If to be a woman in Jackson at that time limits one's options, to be a black woman offers almost no options at all. For our other two narrators, Aibileen and her best friend Minny, they have followed the path of their mothers and almost all the women they know. They have been, since their teenage years, maids. The help, working in the homes of the prominent white families, cooking and cleaning and often being the primary care giver for their employer's children from the moment of their births.
While she loves her family, Skeeter would like nothing better than to escape to New York City and pursue a career but her conversation with a blunt but helpful NY editor makes her realize she needs to write something to showcase her talent and comes up with what she thinks is a wonderful idea. She will write about something she knows, the experiences of the 'colored' maids and their relationships with their employers.
Skeeter is a good hearted, but very naive young woman. First of all, she knows virtually nothing about these women and their lives, not even her beloved maid Constantine, now gone, who raised her. Second, she has no idea of the very real danger she will put herself and the women who talk to her in for crossing the line between these two groups. People have been killed for less.
"No. I couldn't. That would be...crossing the line.Those lines are an idea that comes up again and again throughout the book, something people on both sides recognize. But, as I said, things are changing, even deep in Mississippi, and some people are beginning to wonder about those lines. Aibileen has changed since her only son died not that long ago, something in her shifted. She is the first to cautiously talk to Skeeter and share her stories, to wonder about even her assumptions, as when she is talking to her friend Minny, about Minny ex-employer and Skeeter's friend, Hilly.
But the idea won't go away."
"It ain't true."If only it were that simple. But as these three women and all the other folks in their worlds find out, change is possible, but doesn't come without a price.
"You're talking about something that don't exist."
I shake my head at my friend. "Not only is they lines, but you know good as I do where them lines be drawn."
Aibileen shakes her head. "I used to believe in em. I don't anymore. They in our heads. People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there. But they ain't"
Please don't get the idea that just because it is concerned with a serious subject and there is a real sense of anxiety about what is going on throughout the book, that this book is all serious. It is not. Some of the characters are delightful and often very funny. While many of the stories that the maids tell are of cruel and abusive employers, others are amusing, some truly touching, like that of the very eldely Faye Belle.
"Her story unfolds like soft linen. She remembers hiding in a steamer trunk with a little white girl while Yankees soldiers stomped through the house. Twenty years ago, she held that same white girl, by then an old woman, in her arms while she died. Each proclaimed their love as best friends. Swore that death could not change this. That color meant nothing. The white woman's grandson still pays Faye Belle's rent. When she's feeling strong, Faye Belle sometimes goes over and cleans up his kitchen."Usually, in my reviews, this is the point that I get to "The But". The one..or two or more things that I think could have been better in the book. Honestly, in "The Help", there is no but. I can not think of one way that it could have been improved. Her characters, the good and the bad, are so clearly painted that they will feel like people that you know; the setting so clear that you can feel the heat of a Mississippi summer and taste Minny's caramel cake. As a first novel, I think Ms. Stockett's achievement is outstanding and I only hope that she follows in the steps of the man she mentions in her dedication, "Grandfather Stockett, the best storyteller of all" and will have many more grand tales to tell us in the future.
I give this book a very strong recommendation and only hope that you love it as much as I did.
Let's see what some others think of this book....
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