The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Aibileen is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, raising her seventeenth white child. She's always taken orders quietly, but lately it leaves her with a bitterness she can no longer bite back. Her friend Minny had certainly never held her tongue, or held onto a job for very long, but now she's working for a newcomer with secrets that leave her speechless. And white socialite Skeeter has just returned from college with ambition and a degree, but, to her mother's lament, no husband. Normally Skeeter would find solace in Constantine, the beloved maid who raised her, but Constantine has inexplicably disappeared.
Together, these seemingly different women join to write, in secret, a tell-all book about what it's really like to work as a black maid in the white homes of the South. Despite the terrible risks they will have to take, and the boundaries they will have to cross, these three women unite with one intention: hope for a better day.
I don't know where to start.
I loved everything about The Help. Reading it feels like time-travelling back to Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1962 - 1964. Stockett's attention to detail is impressive, especially when it comes to the interactions between characters. The subtleties in the way Hilly, Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny talk to each other showcase the racial tensions of the early 1960s vividly. Stockett doesn't gloss over her subject. She tells the good, the bad, and the ugly - which is entirely the point of The Help. She doesn't try to cast the white women in a positive light, just an accurate one. The relationships between the maids and their employers; the maids and the children they take care of; and the maids and Skeeter are complicated - sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter.
All of the characters are complicated and dynamic, too. The three narrators are easy to sympathize with for a plethora of reasons. Their stories are very different, but each one is full of heartbreak, humor, and courage. Each woman has a distinctive voice and a lot of personality. Stockett presents their stories as sympathetic but not pitiful; the narrators don't complain about their situation, they just tell the truth of it. I especially love that Skeeter isn't portrayed as a saint. She doesn't escape the influence of racism, and it's obvious that she has to go back on what she was taught and overcome it. It was touching, to see her making that effort.
A teacher once told me that the reason we learn about history is so that we don't make the same mistakes out ancestors did. Jim Crow is a mistake I hope we never repeat. Reading about the lives of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter was like stepping into a different world for me, but many of its lessons are still relevant today. The Help is fiction, but it isn't false, and that's what makes it so important. NPR called it "one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird," and I have to agree. The Help is a heartfelt, wonderfully written book that leaves an impression even after the final page has been turned.
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.