The Help by Kathryn Stockett
This novel tells the stories of women in Mississippi in the early days of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. The voice shifts between two black maids (Aibileen and Minny) and a young white college graduate (Skeeter) who becomes inspired to tell the stories of maids.
I was intrigued to read this book after the success of the movie last year. I’ve always been interested in social history, especially controversial social history. It’s great to know about the politics, the wars, and the conquests, but I want to know what people were wearing and how they interacted. I want to know what they ate and how they talked. I used to get frustrated in history classes learning about battles and memorizing dates when I had no frame of reference in which to place my imaginings of the happenings: What did the soldiers wear? Were they well-fed, or were they eating their boots? What was it like back home? This kind of curiosity is what drew me into The Help.
The story kept me interested. Aibileen is in her late 40’s or early 50’s, once-married but left by her husband, and had one son who was killed in an accident when he was a young man. In place of her son, she has had many babies: the white children who she cared for. Minny is in her 30’s, married to an abusive husband with several children, and has an attitude that gets her into trouble. Skeeter is in her early twenties, unmarried, with a degree and a passion for journalism.
The society world of Skeeter and her sorority sisters (now members of the Junior League and almost all married) is a world where people do things for you. The women have maids who clean their houses and care for their children. Aibileen is Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth’s maid, and it is obvious that she loves Elizabeth’s daughter more than Elizabeth does, and the baby feels the same way about Aibileen. Minny begins the book as their friend Hilly’s mother’s maid, but when the woman succumbs to dementia, Hilly puts her into a home, leaving Minny out of a job. Minny’s attitude and a Terrible Awful thing that she has done while working for Hilly leave her without a good reference, and she goes to work for a young woman who doesn’t fit the Junior League society (though she wishes she did), Celia.
True to form for me, I felt so much for Celia. Although she was a secondary character, she was an outsider and didn’t know what she was doing in the home or in the kitchen. I felt like she was a scrapper. I cried when I read about her miscarriage– and I felt sick and had to put the book down for a while. I felt for Minny too, as I read about her husband’s abuses and how her “sassiness” got her in trouble with employers. It was sad for me to think about how Minny was an undesirable employee despite her skills, just because she didn’t want to be walked over. And Aibileen… Oh, Aibileen. How sad it was that Aibileen would always leave a family when the children got old enough to start looking down on her for the color of her skin. How could the children ever learn when their parents taught them that black people were inferior?
The Help has been cinematized, praised, awarded, and panned. The Association of Black Women Historians issued a statement condemning the book as ignoring the hardships black domestics faced in the South of the era, or worse, turning them into comic relief. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but I just didn’t see it that way. I kept on thinking “If this is what happened to these fictional women, imagine the terrible things that happened to real women!” I enjoyed the book greatly and was sad to see it end. I wonder what would have happened next to these women.