Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Have you ever read a book that is so powerful and so enlightening because it opened up your eyes to a world that you’ve never been in and have no understanding of? This feeling doesn’t happen to me very often, but when it does…especially if it comes from a book, I am amazed because only a small number of books have done that for me. And I know I’ve raved about this book and this one, and I’ll even say that the Crazy Rich Asians series was incredibly entertaining and educational at the same time–these are the two elements that I love in a book, and The Help has just that.

But The Help isn’t like most books. It’s a story about race, inequality, love and hate and how they all come together in full circle. The story involves three women–all strong female characters, in my opinion–and their perspectives. Two are black, one is white. They live in one of the most racially divided states in the country in the early 1960s–Mississippi.

TheHelp

Jackson, Mississippi is a town riddled with racism disguised as “southern charm,” a town where the division of labor is clear and social class is flaunted every single day. It’s a town that boasts a lot of pride and involvement in politics (after all, it was the civil rights era back then), from both men and women, but at the same time, blind to the very acts that constitutes inequality between the blacks and whites in the first place.

Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter are three women embarking on a secret project to write and publish a book about what it’s like to work as a maid for white folks. Aibileen and Minny, as you may have guessed by now, is black, and Skeeter is white. Each woman comes from different places, but their unique stories brought them together throughout the book.

In a place like Jackson, Mississippi, there were rules governing the behavior of whites and blacks, as a way to keep the divide–it was well known that blacks often serve white families as caregivers, cooks, cotton pickers, farm workers, and more. They ate in different rooms and used different toilets. Aibileen and Minny are no different. Aibileen works for the Leefolts, taking care of their daughter while Minny works for old Miss Walters, and later on, Miss Celia Foote.

Back then, women (especially white women) often got married and had kids by the time they’re in the early twenties. But not Skeeter. Skeeter is is a 23-year-old college educated woman who came back home after graduating from college. Two of her closest friends are Elizabeth Leefolt (whom Aibileen works for) and Hilly Holbrook. Despite the fact that the three grew up together in the same town, as best friends, Hilly and Elizabeth both got married and had children first, whereas Skeeter has never had a boyfriend. Much to her mother’s chagrin, she does not want to have a boyfriend or get married.

Then there’s the “sass-mouthing” Minny, who is best friends with Aibileen. Minny is a tough woman who rules over her house and her five children and is known as the best cook in town. But despite her tough exterior, she has a deep, dark secret–an abusive husband that she can’t bear to leave. She’s terrified of him but is pulled back by the forces and restrictions placed upon her as a poor, colored woman in the 1960s.

While Skeeter (whose real name is Eugenia Phelan) is busy looking for work, her friends are working hard to set her up with a man named Stuart Whitworth, or “the Senator’s son,” a man of great prestige simply because of the family he was born into. To please her friends, she agreed to go on a double date with Stuart and Hilly, but ends up storming out of the restaurant because she found him quite rude and chauvinistic.

With that disaster date out of the way, Skeeter begins to think about how she can get experience as a writer. So she begins a correspondence with a woman from a publishing house who rejected her resume because she had no job experience. Somehow she convinced the editor that she could write something good enough to be published, something that bothered her to the core–the unequal treatment between the maids and the white families they work for. She wanted to get their perspective on what it’s like to work for these families, but as she goes around asking several black women, they all balk at the question, like she’s asking them to jump off a bridge. They shudder at the thought of what might happen to them if they talk.

All the while, around town, violence ensues–a black man was hurt so badly that he became blind because he made the mistake of using a white man’s toilet. Another man was shot and killed in front of his house by the KKK because he spoke out against a white politician. Then there’s Aibileen’s son, who was killed in an accident while working for some white men, something that she never got over.

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Photo by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash

Yes, there is a lot of fear of retribution and violence. But the desire to tell their story coupled with the small hope that things may change compelled them so much that they began the project. Meetings happened in secret, beginning with Aibileen, then Minny. Skeeter then introduces their stories to the editor in New York, but was told that she needed to find a dozen more maids and make a specific deadline.

Problem is, nobody wants to talk to Skeeter. After all, she’s a white, privileged woman who has no idea what it’s like to be a maid, but was nonetheless raised by one. Skeeter is really distraught because when she came home from college, her family maid Constantine had disappeared, and nobody would tell her what happened.

As more inequality happens, the maids around town gets madder, so they all decide to help Skeeter. More secret meetings ensued, all the while the tension grows and grows to epic proportions. Skeeter’s friend Hilly Holbrook, who is a true racist, and a mean one at that, finds some Jim Crow booklets in Skeeter’s handbag and immediately begins to castrate her. As the book project progresses, Skeeter starts losing friends and the attention of Stuart. Still, she works hard to finish the book, and it gets published.

There’s so much more I can say about this book (and good stuff too) but I’ll stop right here. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happened after the book got published…and the crazy story that involves Minny and Hilly Holbrook (trust me–it’s scandalous). What I will say though is that the author did an amazing job portraying the voices of the three women. Whenever I read Minny or Aibileen’s perspective, I could hear a black woman’s voice talking in my head. It was that crazy! I heard her and understood her struggles, her pain, her thoughts. Not many authors can do that, and Kathryn Stockett really hit the nail on this one. And whenever I read from Skeeter’s perspective, I could understand her frustrations and her fears as well. She’s young and ambitious, often naive, and learns a great deal about herself and her community while working on the book.

I had suspected that perhaps Kathryn did such a great job portraying three different women because she had personal experience with it, and I was right. Kathryn grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and had a family maid, who took care of her for many years. At the end of the book, she recounts the stories that she had growing up with a maid in the home and how it felt to be privileged.

I sincerely hope you’ll pick up this book. It is truly an eye-opener.

 

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