Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

As a Northerner, I have to admit that I was resisting reading this book for the longest time. When I'm not reading romance novels and reviewing them here, I find my time divided by biographies and non-fiction subjects I can relate to. I didn't think I'd relate to this story of black, female house maids in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement (starting in 1962) and the white woman who brought them all together for a cause. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The Help, debut novel by Kathryn Stockett, is set in Jackson, Mississippi and is primarily the story of two maids, Aibileen and Minny, and a young, just out of college female journalist-to-be, Eugenia (nicknamed Skeeter), who sets out to write about the relationships between the "help" and the white Junior League women that employ them. Inherent in the narrative of this story are all the prejudices these women carry, as well as all the love and affection some of these women  and their children hold for their household servants (and that which the servants hold for some of them, in return). The symbiotic nature of the relationships is revealed by the author as well and to this Yankee I have to admit, it was a bit hard to comprehend. A friend, who grew up in the South in this time period, lived the story of some of these women and was able to explain to me the exalted position these servants held in their employers' households. They were honored guests at children's weddings, tended generations of the same families, and were considered beloved members of those families. That actually helped me to understand and appreciate this book more than I would have otherwise.

Underlying the entire plot line was the need for secrecy for both the maids and Skeeter. The author does an excellent job transmitting the fear of the housemaids as they tried to keep their endeavor secret. In today's world, it's doubtful what they were doing would raise an eyebrow. In fact, tell-all books thrive and our society, while far from perfect, is more colorblind now than it could ever have been then.  But in the early '60's, they were truly putting their livelihoods and indeed their lives, on the line to tell their stories. Relaying this point is Ms. Stockett's strength.  As a caveat, the housemaids' dialogue is regional dialect, and it takes a few paragraphs to understand it. Once you are into the story, however, you don't even notice.

The Help is filled with colorful period characters who are perfect in their depiction of those hard and strange times. Skeeter's own story adds credence to the risk all of these women were taking. While I enjoyed the book immensely, I was disappointed in the ending. It felt too abrupt, and while I would have liked it to go on a bit more and answer some unanswered questions I have about Aibileen, Skeeter and Minny's next steps in their lives,  the ending leaves some room for the imagination. I'd like to think that for all three women, happily ever after comes easy.  They deserve it.

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