Tuesday, April 27, 2010
My take on: The Help
This book was taunting me for weeks, “BUY ME! BUY ME!” I read about it online, I read the book jacket. I thought I can’t wait to read this. There was just one hitch, The Help is still in hardcover. I rarely buy hardcovers unless they are deeply discounted. I always wait for the paperback because it is so much cheaper. I saw the hardcover for 30% off at Borders, and kept saying in my head, “Resist temptation! Resist temptation!” I did resist, but that same day at Target I saw that book for 30% off and other books deeply discounted. Needless to say, I went into Target for lotion and came out with lotion and four more books, including The Help!!! I don’t know about the rest of you but it is very hard to pass up books.
The Help takes place in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s told from three different points of view. Aibileen is a wise black maid, helping raise yet another white child. Minny is her wise-cracking friend, who is also a maid. Minny’s mouth has gotten her in trouble more times than she can count. Now both of them take a huge risk to help a white woman, Skeeter Phelan, with a seemingly impossible task – let the world know what it’s really like to live and work during the civil rights era.
Aibileen works for Elizabeth Leefolt, cooking, cleaning and serving as a surrogate mother to her daughter Mae Mobley. She bites back her tongue as Miss Leefolt and her friend Hilly Holbrook talk about race relations in Jackson. Miss Hilly is one of those people who believed black people were oozing with diseases. It’s Miss Hilly who convinces Miss Leefolt to build a separate bathroom in the garage for Aibileen, so she can’t infect the Leefolt family.
After being blackballed by Miss Hilly, Minny finally has a new job as a maid for the seemingly crazy Miss Celia. Minny works under secrecy because Celia would rather let her husband, Johnny, believe that all she’s doing all of the cooking and cleaning. It leads to some rather hilarious episodes. When they think their shenanigans are about to be discovered by Johnny’s early return home from work, Minny is reduced to hiding in the bathroom. As Minny put it, “My eyes grow sharper in the dark. After a minute I see myself in the mirror over the sink. Crouched like a fool on top of white lady’s toilet. Look at me. Look what it’s come to for Minny Jackson to make a damn living.”
Skeeter is returning home after graduating from college. Despite a degree, Skeeter isn’t sure what the future holds for. Her mother wants Skeeter to fix her wild hair, get some better clothes, and most important – get married. Marriage is one of the ultimate status symbols in the social circle at the time. Unsure of what to do, Skeeter would normally turn to her beloved childhood maid Constantine. But Constantine is gone, and no one will tell Skeeter why. Struggling to find her place, Skeeter fights in secret against the racist initiatives her friends Hilly and Elizabeth want to put into action. This fight leads her to Aibileen, Minny and others like them to expose the hypocrisy going on in Jackson, Mississippi.
I was a little skeptical at how Kathryn Stockett – a white woman – could make material like this believable. I read her author’s note at the end before I actually read the book. Stockett is a native of Jackson, Mississippi, and she admits she's not an expert on race relations. She admits to growing up with a maid, whom she loved like family. That fact does give her some perspective on the maid/child relationship. Despite my reservations, Stockett succeeds in making the material believable. After the first couple of pages, I forgot all about the author herself and focused on the story. Every couple of chapters is told from the point of view of Aibileen, Minny or Skeeter. Stockett does a great job of making sure their voices, mannerisms and personalities are all different, as they all struggle with the same problem – finding their place or purpose in the world.