The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a novel set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s as the Civil Rights movement in America was picking up steam. It revolves around the narrative of three women: Skeeter, a recent Ole Miss grad who is too tall, awkward and different to fit into her social circle; Minny, a tell-it-like-it-is black maid with an abusive husband; and Aibileen, another black maid who has raised seventeen white children, while her own son was killed in a work-related accident.
After her best friend Hilly tells Skeeter to put an announcement in their Junior League newsletter about why white families should install separate, outdoor toilets for their hired black help, Skeeter realizes her place in the world is not where she wants it to be. She approaches Aibileen about putting together a book of interviews, in which the black maids tell everything- the good, the bad, and the ugly- about what it's like working for white women in Jackson, Mississippi. Aibileen hesitates, but then comes to the realization that this is her chance to make an impact, to change the way her former charges think of her. "...my jaw so tight I could break my teeth off. I feel that bitter seed growing inside a me, the one planted after Treelore died. I want to yell so loud that Baby Girl can hear me that dirty ain't a color, disease ain't the Negro side of town. I want to stop that moment from coming- and it come in ever white child's life- when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites."
Aibileen recruits Minny, and the three are off, taking great risks to bring change to their world. The novel explores all these relationships- between blacks and whites, employer and hired help, friends growing apart, men and women, parent and child and so many more in a respectful and beautiful way that left me spellbound.
I don't know what I can say about this book that hasn't already been said. Sometimes books do not live up to their hype; they fail to meet expectations or fall flat or just don't click. This book was on so many "Best of 2009" lists that I got the feeling I was the last person left in blogosphere that hadn't read it. Luckily for me, my boss gave me her copy to borrow and I ate it up in only a few short days. I loved this book. It is written with so much empathy to all the characters involved and truly brings Jackson to life. Yes, there was deep-seeded racism in Jackson in the 60s, but there were also many people uncomfortable with the way things were, and people who leaned more to civil rights but were afraid of the consequences of acting. The Help brought all that to light for me. I feel silly, but I guess I never thought about it before, how big a risk a white person in Mississippi was taking to side with blacks on issues. And how lonely and isolating that must have been. Skeeter came to life for me because of that, but she also made it clear just how clueless white people were about blacks at the time.
I know that Skeeter worried about the maids she was talking to and the dangers they faced in speaking with her, but she only says at the very end of the book (meaning, the end of The Help, not at the end of the book she is writing with the maids) that "There is so much you don't know about a person...We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought." I mean... if she only figured that out at the very end, what started her on the idea of the interview book in the first place? Just the idea that it was something different and might get her a job? That rung a bit hollow for me and made Skeeter seem, for a moment, like she was far more shallow than I had reason to think she was. I was disappointed with her.
This novel is written by a white woman who grew up in Mississippi. At the end of the book, she wrote a note about how terrifying it is for a white woman to write about the deep, complicated but sometimes ultimately affectionate relationships between a white person and a black one in the South at this time. I think Stockett succeeds wonderfully because there are just so many relationships in this book that vary so much in their tone. There is the achingly beautiful relationship between Aibileen and the baby girl she is helping to raise. Between Minny and her sweet but clueless white trash employer. Minny and her former, hated employer. Between Skeeter and her former best friends, and Skeeter and her imperious mother. And other ones that are on the sidelines, detailing stories of how some white people were so horrible to their help. And some were so wonderful to them. I truly appreciated how complex Stockett allowed all the relationships to be, and I enjoyed it the most in the relationship between Skeeter and her mother. You couldn't fit more layers into that relationship if you inserted an onion into it.
This is a book that tells its story through the complex and moving relationships of its characters who ultimately realize that the "kindness don't have no boundaries." I highly recommend this book to readers across all genres; it's wonderful. And I don't think anyone could read this without falling completely in love with the character of Aibileen. She is so kind and wonderful and generous, and a strong, excellently-written woman.