When a book becomes a phenomenon, it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Kathryn Stockett's The Help, the mega-bestselling novel and blockbuster movie, is no exception. It is beloved and reviled, cherished and scorned. This conglomeration of chick lit, race relations and historical fiction is not an easy book to categorize. It crosses boundaries with a white author speaking for an African American narrator. It opens hearts to the plight of hardworking maids in a segregated South. At the brink of the 1960s civil rights movement, three strong women rise above the fray giving a voice to a moment in time.
Skeeter is an open-minded, white girl just out of college. Single and focused on her writing career, she stands out like a sore thumb among her married, child-rearing friends in the ultra-conservative town of Jackson, Mississippi. They're Junior League members concerned about the hygiene of having to share their powder room toilets with their black maids. She's about writing an expose in order to reveal their hypocrisy and cruelty. When a New York publisher expresses interest in the idea, she recruits Aibileen and Minnie to her cause.
Aibileen is the soul of the story. A maid her whole life, she is utterly alone after the tragic death of her only son. She fills her existence with the love she instills into her young charges, especially her latest, Mae Mobley. Her sole purpose is to build up the confidence and shape the character of the white children in her care. With a deft touch, she teaches them about equality, respect and dignity. The most touching passage in the novel is when Aibileen builds up a shattered Mae Mobley's self-esteem by telling her, "You a smart girl. You a kind girl." Her own mother might not value her, but Aibileen is determined to let the know the child know that she does.
Minnie is Aibileen's closest friend and fellow maid. Where Aibileen is calm, cool and collected, Minnie is feisty, outspoken and brash. She has a household full of her own children and an abusive husband to boot. She's not afraid to voice her grievances against her housewife employers, but it often ends in her termination. After taking on "Queen Bee" Hilly Holbrook, she stumbles into the employ of the Marilyn Monore-esque bombshell, Celia Foote. Minnie's dedication and devotion to her bumbling, but good-natured, mistress becomes apparent when she saves her life during a dangerous at-home miscarriage. Minnie may speak out against injustice, but her loyalty to those she cares about is paramount.
Together, Skeeter, Aibileen and Minnie collect the oral accounts of maids throughout the Jackson area. The danger surrounding their groundbreaking endeavor is ever-present. Violence is routinely afflicted on the town's black community. Beatings, shootings, lynchings are common place for those who dare question white authority. These women take a huge risk in putting their day-to-day living conditions into print. This cannot be emphasized enough. While ultimately a feel-good story, The Help addresses the amount of risk these women were willing to take to tell the world what was really going on in Jackson, Mississippi. They were willing to lay their lives on the line in order to have their voices heard.
This is book is built on so many levels. It's not fluff, but exhibits a profound depth. The secondary characters are just as well-developed as the primary cast. The conflict of Skeeter's mother as she tries to reconcile her daughter's liberal tendencies with her own fight against cancer. The fate of Skeeter's childhood maid, Constantine, unravels after she mysteriously disappeared. The false imprisonment of Hilly Holbrook's new maid, Yule May, who begs for a loan to send her twin boys to college only to be set-up for stealing a valuable ring. The disapproval of Skeeter's suitor, Stuart Whitworth, who feels she would jeopardize his father's political aspirations when he finds out about her role regarding the book. There are so many juicy subplots to The Help since it addresses the perspectives of all levels of society - young/old, black/white, male/female, rich/poor. These dichotomies might divide, but when bridged they form the strongest bond of all.
Overall, a book well on its way to becoming an American classic - the To Kill a Mockingbird of the 21st century.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett is available for $16.00 at Amazon.com and at KathrynStockett.com.
Thank you to Bermudaonion for recommending this book. Follow her fantastic book blog and Twitter posts.
Review copy provided by Valley Community Library.