Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett - Book Review #17

Time has diminished the mentally painful discussion of wombs and women who drive at night. With a full bucket, I now get to tell you about a book that is nothing short of remarkable. And let me tell you, this book will go a lot further toward changing the world than filling up people's "buckets" with words. I read all 444 pages of this novel in two days without neglecting any of my duties. I would hate for any of you to wait for it to come out in paperback. Hardback is worth it, my friends. The bookstores display it as soon as you walk through the door for $24; Amazon sells it for $13.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. It is the story of a young white woman named Miss Skeeter who decides to compile true accounts of how black maids (The Help) were treated by their white employers at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Miss Skeeter enlists the help of Aibileen and Minny, best friends who support each other through the less than ideal events of their lives as The Help. When Miss Skeeter decides to put these accounts into a book, it is for her own advancement; she is a writer and with no husband in sight she thinks she has to do something with her time. In the dark of night, Miss Skeeter sits in Aibileen's house and writes down the stories of many of Jackson's Help exactly as they recount them. As she hears the stories of these brave and fearful women, details unfold that are shocking. As Miss Skeeter says, "There is undisguised hate for white women, there is inexplicable love." Miss Skeeter's motives for writing the book change and when the book is published and read by the white women of Jackson, things really change. The redemptive conclusion will have you cheering out loud.

Stockett changes voices throughout the book. A few chapters are written from Miss Skeeter's point of view, and then she changes to writing in Minny and Aibileen's voices. The beautiful accomplishment of these transitions is one of the most magnificent aspects of the book. During interviews about the book, Stockett does not claim to completely understand the voice of The Help in Jackson. However, having grown up in Jackson with "Help", her understanding of their plight and their emotions must come remarkably close.

One of the things that struck me as I read repeated accounts of just how hard The Help worked is how incompetent the white women were in running their households. Their Help was not only cooking, cleaning, and managing homes, they were raising the children of Jackson. In some of the most breathtaking parts of the novel, Aibileen tries very hard to teach Mae Mobely, the daughter of the woman for whom she works, that we are all created equal. Aibileen assumes that Mae Mobely will follow in the footsteps of her bigoted mother, but tries nonetheless to instill morals into the children she is raising.

Miss Hilly is the villain of the novel. Stockett, in a brilliantly genteel, Southern manner, made me despise her. Miss Hilly does many horrible things throughout the novel. One of her primary purposes in life is to have every white household make a separate bathroom for their Help. Miss Hilly thought it was a sin to share a bathroom with a black woman. This way of thinking is so horrific to me. It is stunning to think that attitude was prevalent only 40 years ago. At one point during a toilet discussion, Miss Hilly assumes that Aibileen would not want to go to school with white people. Aibileen replies, "No ma'am...Not a school full a just white people. But where the colored and white folks is together." Miss Hilly says, "But Aibileen...colored people and white people are just so...different." Then the author tells us what Aibileen is thinking but doesn't dare say: "I feel my lip curling. A course we different! Everybody know colored people and white people ain't the same. We still just people!"

There are incredibly funny parts of this book. The foreshadowing Stockett employs is stunning. If I were putting this book on a list, I'd put it towards the top of the list titled, "The Best Fiction Books that Could Change the World". It isn't Anna Karenina good. It isn't Elegance of the Hedgehog good. It's change-the-world-for-good good. Buy this one. Read this one. Tell everyone you know about this one.


  1. I'm glad you are not trying to read a book a day. I could never keep up with your recommendations! I'm way behind as it is... Keep them coming. I'll find time some day.

  2. Ooooh, your book reviews are so good for helping me prioritize my reading! Thank you!

    Next time I see you, I want to tell you a little about my Mom growing up in New Orleans and her mother and some of the themes that seem related to The Help.

  3. I purposely did not read your review until I've gotten through 3/4 of the book--the manuscript was just sent to the publisher. This book is wonderfully written. The stories related make me sad. I was in my first year out of high school when then Governor Claude Kirk, Florida, stood on the steps of Manatee High School and said no Blacks would be allowed to attend the then all-white school. We've come a long way since then, but racism still rears its ugly head. I now gently point it out when I see it. G