Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Help, by Katherine Stockett

Have you read this yet? Odds are that you have. So let's see a show of hands of who all HASN'T read it. Okay, put those hands down onto your purses, and go get this book. Come back after you have read it.

Even if you have read it, you might want to get the audio book, because the voices are wonderful.

Synopsis: Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962-64, it is the story of the relationships between several young white women and the black "maids" who serve their families. "Maid" appears to be an all purpose word, since the maids in this book clean, cook, wash and iron and raise the children, as well as serve as secret keepers. Basically, the maids do all the work so the white women are free be idle.

The story is handled by three narrators. Aibeleen is maid for a couple with a two year old girl, and she's the Butterfly McQueen--loving, kind, gentle. Minny Jackson is sassy and mouthy, married to a drinker with five children at home. Skeeter Phelan is a white woman, a recent graduate of Ole Miss, and the only one of her set who isn't married yet.

Though the various narrations, we see the fundamental contradictions of domestic service in a segregated society. Aibeleen genuinely loves the children she raises, and they genuinely love her, yet they inevitably grow up to insist on continued segregation. Aibeleen is required to use a separate toilet (stuck in the garage) in order to keep her "colored germs" away from the family, yet she washes their dishes, cooks their food, polishes the silver, does the laundry. . .There is just no logic to the arbitrary limits, given all the ways their lives are entangled.

What passes for a plot occurs when Skeeter Phelan decides she wants to interview some maids for a book about how it feels to work for white families. It's a project fraught with danger, as it requires them to meet, something that is simply not imaginable in their strictly segregated world. Then, it requires the maids to tell dangerous secrets--both the failures of the white families, as well as their own complaints. But complaining about white families can easily mean getting fired, if not beaten or killed. This is the town where Medgar Evers was firebombed and killed, and a man was beaten nearly to death for accidentally using a "whites only" toilet.

Of course, the interviews happen, and the book gets written. Along the way Kennedy is assassinated, jobs are lost, babies born, cancer, engagement, Junior League power plays. But the strength of the book is the voices. I am in no position to comment on whether the black voices are authentic to the time or the place, but the characters (especially Aibeleen) feel three dimensional. Stockett acknowledges the major events of the times, although they mostly happen in the background, for example on television channels that get changed. The Vietnam War has less impact on these lives than the arrival of a window air conditioner.

Which is probably accurate, and feels true to the characters. Stockett packs a lot of events into this book, but for the most part they feel believeable and well grounded in the reality of the lives being depicted.

If there is a fault, it might be that the ending is a bit too tidy. Skeeter Phelan gets out of Mississippi entirely; Aibeleen loses her maid job, but is poised to become a writer; Minny leaves her alcoholic husband. But it's hard to fault that, when Stockett has given us so many well balanced stories. Definitely worth spending time in Jackson Mississippi.

5 comments:

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Baley Petersen said...

I have this on my bookshelf. I bought it after being told multiple times that I must read it. I expect to read it sometime soon. Thanks for posting this great review!

byLGD Glass Jewelry said...

i adored this book. everything about it. simply loved it. i actually didn't read-read it, but i listened to it and it was divine. sometime this summer i'm going to listen to it again. :) Harper Collins contacted me to read a new book, Wench. it arrived the other day and i haven't started it... have you read it yet?

Cate Ross said...

I haven't read "Wench," but I heard an interview with the author, and it sounded very interesting. I'm not sure if I have it on my "To Be Read" list officially, but it's meant to be.

I really liked "The Help," and the voices were fabulous. I'll relisten to this one too.

Hyacinth Marius said...

The book is much better than the movie. I love the way the chapters are divided up among the three main characters and each is written in that character's voice. You see the same incidences from several different viewpoints and helps to make it more real. It was a very enjoyable book.
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