Friday, July 24, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett captures the reader with its profiles of black household help and the white women who relinquished the care of homes and children to them in the early 1960’s in Jackson Mississippi. The novel relates story after story of both careless cruelty and careful concern in a time that is not too long gone.

Three strong women are the backbones of the novel. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is home from college without a marriage proposal and hopes to be a writer. Coping with the loss of her own son, Aibileen is a black maid who is raising her seventeenth white child. Minny is Aibileen’s best friend who has no trouble saying what she feels and therefore is searching for a new job. Skeeter decides to write a series of interviews of black maids and entangles Aibileen and Minny in her work. The author draws the reader in with careful characterization. These three women have flaws but this only increases their believability and humanity.

The author writes from her experience since she was cherished by a black housekeeper, Demetrie, after her mother deserted the family. Born and raised in Jackson, Stockett loves her home state with true grit. She has lived this life and authenticity shines throughout its pages.

There is so much to this book to reflect upon. Book discussion groups will dissect it with piercing analysis. First of course is the civil rights movement that provides the core of the novel. It’s all here - separate toilets, lunch room sit-ins, King’s march on Washington and the murder of Medgar Evans. What mothers want from their daughters and what daughters really need is prominent. Skeeter is tall and has frizzy hair and her mother frets and worries that she will never have a ring on her finger. Body image, the need for the approval of men and the southern belle mentality of women all are present. The men adore their woman and are courteous and respectful but are easily manipulated. Lots of good old boy hunting trips keep the men sane.

Differences in the friendship of silver spoon white woman and the church going black women also become apparent. The white women have so much time to plot against one another with full radiant smiles. Cooking and cleaning is too much for them and the reader becomes exhausted just reading about the daily chores of the household help. The setting is southern and vivid descriptions of pies, cakes and fried chicken are present in mouth watering glory. The black maids seem to be there for one another and the warmth of their relationships lessens the tense tone. Amid the seriousness of the novel hopeful optimism prevails. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are strong and smart women but they are also capable of providing light moments and laughter.

I confidently recommend this inviting historical fiction novel for its thoughtful portrayal of the triumph of heart over hate.