The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Published by Amy Einhorn Books on February 10, 2009
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Historical Fiction
Length: 465 pages Source: ThriftBooks
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Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
I could read The Help again and again and again and it holds up every time. I love this book.
Of course, I’ve gone the very backwards way about reading this one. I swathe movie first… I saw the movie about five times before I listened to the audiobook back in 2016 and I’m finally picking up the hardcopy now. At first, the dialect threw me – this book starts in Aibileen’s point-of-view, and it’s written in a stereotypical Southern dialect. It took me a hot minute to settle into the writing, but once I did, it just flowed. I’m not super crazy about the writing being split into dialects, but it was something I could get past.
I think by now most people know this story – Aibileen works as a maid and nanny for a white family in Jackson, Mississippi. When she is approached by a white girl (Skeeker Phelan) to share her story for an anonymous book about the complicated relationship between white families and their help, she hesitates. Why would someone want to hear her tory, with all the racism she sees every day. And why should she help this white girl, when speaking out like that could make her lose her job – or worse, land her in jail? But Aibileen decides to help. Her story, she decides, is important. And when Hilly Holbrook gets her maid thrown in jail for four years for stealing, the other maids of the town decide it’s time to do something, too.
One of the things I really enjoy about this book is all the layers of grey. The Help is spoken about a lot when it comes to the themes of racism, but if you breathe in the story as a whole, there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s racism, yes, but there’s also class exclusion, sexism… there’s discrimination against people based on education, mental health, marriage status, and age. These women can be horrible to each other, but nobody is worse than Hilly Holbrook. If Hilly decides she doesn’t like you, you’re a social outcast. It’s why Lou Anne doesn’t mention her depression, why Elizabeth spends so much time trying to make dresses that look expensive and store-bought… it’s why all the women in town shun Celia Foote and eventually Skeeter as well. Hilly’s pure horribleness is why you have to love Minny. Because someone needed to put that woman in her place.
These characters are layered and fantastic. Even the side characters, even the ones under Hilly’s spell, are interesting and deep if you give them half a chance. There’s politicians and society ladies each with their own Rules. Senator Whitworth was an interesting one, drinking himself to death because his own values were at war with the ones he needed to uphold in his job and in “polite society”. And little Mae Mobly, who at three years old sees the wrong in the world. We can talk about Aibileen and Skeeter and Minny… but every character in this book has a point and purpose to the discussion. I thought it was really well-crafted.
I think I’d like to point out – this book can be a bit of a hot topic. While I really like it, and think it tells a good story, and think that Kathryn Stockett did a good job trying to be fair (there’s a section in the back where she talks about how she cannot imagine what it was really like to be a black woman in the 1960s South)… there are some things that people call out. They call her out for ingenuine voice – there are three characters here and two of them are black where the author is white. They call her out for perpetuating stereotypes and creating a white savior. I want to say that I’m a white girl who lives in New England and I feel like I have to right to really weigh in on the conversation of racism – historical fiction can be complicated by that, and I suggest reading an #OwnVoices review** for true and fair insight on that point.
But. I’ve seen the white savior trope and I thought Kathryn Stockett did a good job trying to draw the line between “white savior” and “someone who had the ability to do a little more than others because she is white and the world is unjust”. And also? Nobody is really saved here. Despite the comradery and the joy they feel at being able to tell their story, nobody is actually better at the end of the novel. Skeeter basically has to flee town and the maids are only saved by Southern propriety, and even then… not all of them. So while I respect people opinions and even character in the book point out that Skeeter is just doing all this out of pity and to feel good about herself, I like to believe that she was a young lady genuinely upset with her peers and the world and wanted to do what she could rather than stand aside to avoid being a racist cliche. But that’s just me.
In short, I do really like this book, I think it’s well-written and I good snapshot, I think it’s too in-depth and heavy to be considered a “chick flick” or “beach read” (Goodreads, I don’t get you), and I think you need to decide about the cliches and accusations of racism for yourself. The story has three round characters from different backgrounds and living situations, of different ages, all coming together to tell a story that needs telling to the world in a time where it is both dangerous and very important to do so. Love it or hate it, The Help brought racism into the spotlight when it became a bestseller, and again when the movie was a hit, and it sparks important conversations while still being an excellent read.
**In the interest of being fair, I wanted to link a few #OwnVoices reviews I found on Goodreads. Since I praised this book, I did want to show the other side of the coin, so four reviews are one-star, two are five-star (two different sides). I picked ones that I thought were more comprehensive than just “this book sucked”: Rebekah Weatherspoon, Felicia (Ferishia), Yasmin Hardy, Maegen are all one-star reviews, and the five-star reviews are Erica and Olivia-Savannah Roach.
The Help stays on the shelf!
Who am I kidding – I could read this book again and again and again. This is one of those ones where I feel like every read peels off another layer. Every read shows me another aspect of the characters, and it is so easy for me to get wrapped up. For the final stretch of this one, I wasn’t supposed to stay up late because I had to get up wicked early for work the next day… and I accidentally did anyway. I was so tired, but it was still worth it.