the help

In Mississippi during the 1960s, the African American women who waited on white families were supposed to be invisible and silent, and young white society women were supposed to marry and raise families.  But in her outstanding debut novel The Help, Kathryn Stockett creates three amazing characters who decide they’re tired of the rules.

Abilene has spent her adult life raising the children of the white families she’s worked for.  She dotes on the little girl under her care but knows their time together is limited; she discovered early that it’s best to move on to the next job before the children come to understand what the differences in their skin color mean.

Minny, too, has had more jobs than most maids; her big mouth has lost her nearly as many positions as her fantastic cooking has earned her.  But with a house full of kids and an unreliable husband, finding the next job — whatever that may entail — is always vital.

Skeeter is a new college graduate, now back in her parents’ home and lunching with her old Jackson friends.  But she has begun to see her hometown in a new light.  For the moment, though, she’s trapped there, and though she dreams of becoming a writer, the only thing anyone will pay her to write is a housekeeping column in the local newspaper — even though Skeeter knows nothing about keeping house.  To get the answers she needs, she asks her friend Elizabeth’s maid Abilene for help.

This partnership is the foundation of a tentative friendship.  As the two women spend more time together, Skeeter learns more about Abilene’s life, including the loss of her son and his plan to write a book about being black and working for a white man in Mississippi.

And Skeeter decides to write a book of her own: about about black maids working for white families, from the perspective of the black maids.  But she needs help.

The novel is presented in the first person, with the three voices intertwining throughout, and Stockett’s ability to capture each personality so entirely in both diction and tone is masterful.  Her supporting characters are enjoyably complex as well and offer moments both hilarious and cringe-inducing.   

But the center of the novel is the developing relationship between the three women.  Stockett illustrates the wariness, the fear, and the eventual growing trust among them with care and dignity.  By entering into this endeavor as partners, as adults — as equals — they are crossing boundaries they have all lived by through their entire lives.  And though they do so cautiously and at times hesitantly, their courage to do so at all is really what the story is all about. 

Told with sincerity and humor, The Help is a beautifully written story of humanity and friendship.   Stockett’s own experiences in the South are at its core, and both her love and frustration for the region and its people are evident throughout it.  Though the novel is set within the context of the larger civil rights movement, its focus is not on marches or sit-ins; rather, it simply conveys the power in telling one’s own story.

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~ by Molly on July 27, 2009.

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