Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
First Published: February 2009
Publisher: Putnam Adult
Challenges: 100+ Reading Challenge, Support your Local Library Reading Challenge
On the flap
Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.
Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating
from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and
her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger.
Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine,
the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one
will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Aibileen is a black maid,
a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has
shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his
bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she
looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest
woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she
can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally
finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her
reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless
come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk.
And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define
their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
After being on hold for this book since the October of last year, it was very satisfying to hold the book that has been touted as the top read of 2009. I had once read the first page of this book, and loved it. This time, I can say the same for the entire book.
The Help starts from the perspective of Aibileen, a black maid, who works in the house of Elizabeth Leefolt, one of Skeeter's close friends. Elizabeth is to be the host of the bridge club, in which Skeeter, Hilly, another of Skeeter's close friends, and Mrs Walters, Hilly's mother, are to play. Before soon, Hilly is insisting on separate bathrooms for the women of the household and the help, for hygiene purposes.
Minny, Hilly's maid, sasses when ever she gets irritated or angry. She strives to hold her temper in, but it never works. Soon, she has lost yet another job. To compound matters, Hilly has been bad-mouthing Minny, thereby making it hard for Minny to find another job to feed her huge family.
Skeeter has just returned home after graduation, without a job or any plan about what to do with her life. Her mother wants her to get married, but Skeeter isn't interested. She wants to write, and after much deliberation, she comes up with a very brave and controversial idea to write about.
There starts a very powerful story of three women, or rather five women in my opinion, since in addition to the three main protagonists, Hilly and Miss Celia, Minny's new employer are very crucial to the story as well. Did you ever feel when reading a book, that you had to whoop in delight or whip any character to nice manners, or cry with strong heartfelt emotions, for the sufferings of some character(s)? The Help WOW-ed me on all factors. It touched me at a deep core, leaving me to think of the book for days afterwards.
Not many good books bring every character to life, major or minor. Doing that makes a book great in my opinion. Feeling the presence of the characters around you makes their experiences all the more believable and credible. Minny, as the sass-mouth, was the one I identified with the most. I loved it that she took no crap from others. On the one hand, she was scared of the consequences, but on the other, she couldn't just sit and watch. Miss Celia, on the other hand, enjoyed being pampered, but mostly, she enjoyed having someone who spoke to her or chided her with genuine intentions rather than with a smug perspective.
Aibileen was the more mature and respected maid, whose opinions, fears and wishes have been shaped by years of experience as a housemaid - bringing up seventeen white children, watching them call her 'Mama' more often than they would call their biological mothers, seeing the looks of distrust and suspicion, even disgust on the faces of the women she waited on. Hilly's suggestion of separate bathrooms breaks some wall within her and it's quite sorrowful reading how little power these women (the help) have in their hands.
Skeeter was a perplexing character to me. It is evident from the start that she is repulsed by the racial segregation and bigotry that corrupts her friends' thoughts. She yearns to do something about it, and while in the process of determining how to begin her career, she comes up with an idea to help the black women waiting in the white households. While I found her intentions honorable, occasionally I was wondering what the whole exercise was for Skeeter. How genuinely did she feel the pain and sufferings of the black maids? How much did she empathize with them? Was the whole project primarily a literary exercise for her or a humanitarian undertaking? I was never convinced of Skeeter's position throughout the story. Although I had no doubt that she believed in the welfare of the help, it was not clear to me if her participation was passive or aggressive.
The Help gives a lucid description of the difficulties faced by the black families. There is Hilly's Home Help Sanitation project that advocates separate bathrooms for the residents of a white household and the help, reasoning that the black people carry different diseases and can endanger the lives of the people they wait on. Then there is the case of the black boy who is horribly assaulted, and blinded as a result, simply because he used a bathroom reserved for whites, when there was no board or notice beside the bathroom. In addition there are several subtle references such as when Elizabeth's daughter, Mae, plays with Aibileen's comb, and her mother insists on Mae taking her bath immediately.
It has to be told that amidst this murkiness, there are a lot of positive stories too of white women helping the black maids. Such as, one woman leaving a note before her death to her maid, thanking her for taking care of her baby. The mother of the blinded boy was given paid leave to take some leave and stay by her son. The Help is not just a recounting of hardships, it is also an expression of the good happening in times of bad. It shows how even before Martin Luther King's famous speech, white women were embracing their black maids, if not literally, at least as women who deserve equality and respect.
In addition to being a story of the relationship between the black and white women, it is also a story of mother-daughter relationships. There are several overtones of this theme throughout the book, both in the minimal recognition by babies and toddlers of their biological mothers as their true mothers, and in the relationship between Skeeter and her mother. Skeeter's initial reactions to her ailing mother broke me badly. Her increasingly weakening mother is not a perfect epitome of a woman in many respects. She holds bigot opinions against the help, and is not one to gracefully take to situations where she might be humiliated. In short, a woman who protectively guards her status in society. But she is not an evil woman. Her beliefs are something that she has been adhering to, from years of seeing and hearing the same things - an old woman's hesitancy to let go of her past, however unjustifiable. I waited for a long time for Skeeter to wake up to her mother's health deterioration. When she does, it is with a sorrow hard to bear.
Overall, this is a great book, in my opinion. The characters, the place, the events, all feel very real. And as I read the book, I couldn't help but vociferously celebrate the small successes of the human spirit, and cry in disgust at all the prejudices flying around.
Before I started reading this book, I couldn't make head nor tail of what this title means. It seemed to me a weird pair of words, as if indicating a particular instance of someone help's on some matter, which probably sets the dice rolling. But after reading it, I berated myself for not guessing that The Help referred to the maids who served in the white households. So simple, yet so eloquent!
Cover Art Demystified
The book comes with a very peaceful-looking cover, that try as I might, I can't decipher it. I do have several theories, but since I am not so sure of any of them, I will refrain from guessing. I would however love to hear your analysis on the cover, so please leave me a comment!
What did you think?
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I'd like to know what you thought about it. Please leave your review
link in the comments, or a brief opinion, if you hadn't reviewed it.
Did you love it or were you bothered by anything in or about the book?