Not all bestsellers are worth all the hype. Anything written by Dan Brown, for instance. When I see stacks of a book piled up at Costco, I narrow my eyes and wonder. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is an exception to that rule and after it was recommended to me by several reliable sources (thanks, Mom!) I finally got a hold of it from the grips of other patrons at the library. What, did they only have one copy and a librarian on a mule was delivering it personally to each person's home? Sheesh.
The Help tells the story from there different women's perspectives in 1960's Jackson, Mississippi. If you know anything about the Civil Rights movement, you'll know what a hotbed that particular area was during that time. Two of the women are black maids in white homes and their viewpoints are similar, but how they react and deal with their situations differ. Aibilene is a black maid working for a middle class family with one little girl. The mother cannot seem to bond with her child and Aibilene steps in as a mother figure to her. Aibilene lost her own son in a tragic accident and tending people's children has always brought her joy, up until they get big enough to turn into their parents. Minny is a maid who has gotten fired from more jobs than she can count on two hands due to her smart mouth. There is no tolerance for a smart-mouthed black woman employed by white women during that time. She ends up as a maid for a young woman who came from extremely humble roots and doesn't seem to know where the line between black and white is supposed to be. Skeeter is white and the daughter of a predominant family in Jackson, fresh out of college and ready to become a famous writer. She decides to pursue a book project exposing how white women treat their black maids and nannies, but her initial motivation is to get published. Only later does she come to realize how little she knows about these women's lives.
There were aspects of this book that were deeply disturbing. Hilly, one of Skeeter's old friends who is a woman of great influence in Jackson, has it out for black women. She is the instigator of getting other families to install outdoor bathrooms for their maids so they don't have to share with the family. Her initiative hypes up the prevention of diseases being spread between the races, with the emphasis on black to white. Hilly is so wrapped up in making sure the black maids know their place that she becomes more and more irrational and terrifying. It was terrifying to me to think that women like her made life in Mississippi that much harder for black women during that time. Hilly is a horrible human being and I started to wonder if she was being portrayed too one-sided, but Stockett does make sure we know that Hilly loves her children and takes good care of them. Also, I started to realize that even though I don't personally know someone this vindictive, manipulative and self-righteous doesn't mean they don't exist.
Watching Skeeter evolve through the book was fascinating. Her maid, Constantine, who was like a mother to her growing up, mysteriously disappeared right before she came home from college. No one will tell her where she went or what happened and part of why she wants to collect stories from the maids in the community is to find out what happened to her. Other than that reason, Skeeter has no interest in changing the laws or seeing things done differently, she just wants to point out what is going on between the maids and their employers. As she learns more and hears more of their stories, personally witnesses their tragedies, and then is singled out by the angry white women of her community, she starts to empathize and desire change.
I felt a bit like Skeeter as I read The Help. I'm lucky enough to live in a day and age where racism is intolerable and how often have I ever encountered it? Or persecution of any type? As I read, I felt like there was a world out there that I have never had to experience, much like Skeeter had never experienced. It was eye-opening to me. The book is written in such a way to draw you into these women's lives without pitying them. I became frustrated, righteously indignant, and then admiring of their strength and ability to keep going despite the cards stacked so heavily against them.
Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and comes from the background of having had a black maid growing up, a woman who nursed and cared and cleaned up after her and her family. She didn't begin to question the roles of her family and her maid's until she was much older. At the time she was growing up, it was completely normal. Her small appendix at the end of the book explains her history and the fact that she wrote this book for that beloved maid. In my opinion, she did her a great honor. Stockett's storytelling was phenomenal and since this is her first book, I hope to see many more in the future.