Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter tell their own lives as a history of extreme racism in the Deep South that still manages to shock, despite our familiarity with it. Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s was a terrible place to be a maid, a dangerous place to speak your mind and a swamp of unexamined prejudice and bigotry masquerading as privilege. The Help is the interwoven story of a restless white woman who asked questions and the many black women who suffered daily degradation and still managed to keep shreds of hope alive.
Aibileen loves the children she cares for and quietly teaches them to respect themselves and see people, not skin color. Minny cooks like a dream and has a quick tongue, a wicked streak and a temper. She can’t stay employed because she is “uppity”—she speaks her mind aloud—and sometimes worse. Skeeter is too tall, hungry for more than her small-minded small town can offer and overwhelmed by a mother who manages her every move to help her attract a husband.
Kathryn Stockett is so good at voices that the three storytellers are as real as neighbors and elicit the empathy we reserve for friends. There is real peril in the simple actions they take, real consequences that can wreck or end a life in a heartbeat. Horrible things happen in the black community, from well-known news events like the murder of Medgar Evers in front of his wife and children, to unremarked cruelty like the blinding of a promising young black man for no reason at all. The white women of the local League are snooty, cliquish, unabashedly racist, fearful, ignorant and altogether repugnant.
The courage to speak up, to tell the truth, to refuse to be treated like garbage–or less than–is most often rewarded with joblessness, jail, maliciously ruined reputations, beatings, terrorizing and heartbreak. Most often but not always. Times are changing, painfully but inexorably. When the help and their anxious scribe risk putting the truth down on paper for an anonymous tell-all book about what a maid’s life is like in Jackson, no one can be sure of the consequences.
I waited a long time to pick up this book. Sometimes I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon of a book that explodes into the market. I let The Help sit on the shelf for more than a year after receiving it. But it lives up to its hype. It was funny, sad, infuriating and hopeful. The women, bad bitches and good guys, are wonderfully drawn. I should have read it sooner. Glad I finally did.
The Help Kathryn Stockett | Amy Einhorn Books 2009