Monday, August 22, 2011

The Help (A Novel) by Kathryn Stockett. Historical Fiction Review

Penguin Books, Published 2009. ISBN 978-0-425-23220-0, 522 pages

The Help by Kathryn Stockett was chosen by a member of my book club as our assigned reading.  At first glance, being a historical fiction buff, I thought I'd have to grit my teeth and wade through it.  Another lesson on not judging a book by its cover.

The action in The Help commences Jackson, Mississipi in 1962, but I'm going to stretch the 50 year qualification rule.  After all, what's a year in the grand scheme of things?

The Help is told through the eyes of three protagonists:  Aibileen and Minny, black maids to white society women, and Skeeter, a white woman with a burning ambition to enter the world of journalism. 

Skeeter is already somewhat of a odd-ball in white society, because she finished college and is still unmarried.  Marriage is a relentless pursuit by white society ladies; college a means to meeting the prospective husband.

Aibileen has raised 17 white children during her long tenure as a maid and endured slurs without a murmur.  The final insult is when her employer, Elizabeth, insists a bathroom be built in a shed outside her home for Aibileen's use to prevent dangerous diseases inherently carried by black people infecting her family.

Minnie, however, is not a character who takes kindly to innuendos or outright besmirchment.  She has lost many employment positions due to "sassing" her employers.  In fact, because of the Terrible Awful (you'll understand the importance of these words when you read the book), Minnie is virtually unemployable.  Luckily, for her, a white woman considered trash by the society ladies hires Minnie.

Skeeter, challenged by a New York publisher to write on an innovative subject, decides to write a book about what it is like to be a black maid to a white woman.

The principal antangonist is Hilly Hollbrook, a white lady despot who is determined to keep black maids "in their place" and fellow society members under her thumb.  One whiff of Skeeter's project would have disastrous results for Skeeter and black maids alike.

This leads to me to the only problem I had with this novel; the vapid society ladies that surround Hilly.  Her every word, decree and hand signal is obeyed without question.  Surely women possessed minds in the 1960's.

One of Skeeter's biggest obstacles is finding a black woman willing to tell her story.  Aibileen, after much persuasion, becomes the first black maid to talk to Skeeter; a task Aibileen finds difficult, to say the least.  Aibileen convinces her best friend, Minnie, to be the second.

The Help is the tale of Skeeter struggling against seemingly insurmountable odds to publish a book that crosses the line, especially in Jackson, Missippi, and the black women who make the book possible.

Kathryn Stockett empathetically conveys the intense dread these black women suffer in fear of retribution for telling their stories to Skeeter.  The Help is an emotional, poignant and, sometimes, funny novel, which will shock you that such circumstances existed a mere 50 years ago.

I especially recommend you read Kathryn Stockett's essay, Too Little, Too Late, at the end of he novel.

This is a great book for book clubs (especially now the movie has come out) or for anyone who truly wishes to understand the circumstances and realities black people faced in the Deep South in the 1960's.

Rating:  4 Stars **** (Excellent)

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