Book Title – The Help
Author – Kathryn Stockett
Genre - Fiction, Drama
Genre - Fiction, Drama
My rating – 9/10
Racial discrimination then prevalent forms the basis of this interesting novel set in the 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter Phelan finishes college and comes back to her hometown nurturing dreams of becoming a writer. Her mother on the other hand dreams for her to be settled in marital bliss. She does land up a writing job but not the kind she envisioned. Her writing assignments for a housekeeping column bring her to Aibileen, a maid at the home of Elizabeth Leefolt, one of Skeeter’s best friends. Aibileen takes care of Mae Mobley, Elizabeth’s toddler along with performing other housekeeping duties. This encounter leads to revelation of sorts. A faint hope of recognition by a popular publisher and the search for answers about Constantine, the woman who raised her, brings Skeeter to Aibileen’s doorstep and from thereon begins their writing journey. Which brings us to the other important characters of the story – there is this fiery Minny, who does not hesitate to give a piece of her mind and something else to her white employer and there is also Ms. Hilly Holbrook, the employer in question, Skeeter’s friend and the head of the Junior League. As the voyage of alphabets continues and the stories unfold, Skeeter comes face to face with the harsh and unpleasant particulars of subsistence led by the African-Americans in the society and starts questioning the role of her own people in it. A short lived romance with Stuart Whitworth that ends on a disastrous note finds a place somewhere in between the months when the three women keep coming together for a common purpose. At the onset, fear, hesitation, suspicion and anger, all the emotions put together dissuade the colored maids from opening up to Skeeter but in the end it is those very sentiments that give them the required strength.
“How does it feel to raise a white person’s child when your own child is at home being looked after by someone else?” This Question asked by Skeeter to Aibileen more or less sets the mood for this novel. But if you went on to read thinking the story would provide insight only in the world of the colored help like Aibileen and Minny, you wouldn’t be more wrong. The book is as much about Skeeter, the writer, as it is about the subjects. If Aibileen who loves Mae Mobley enough to teach her the lessons of life can be regarded as a misfit because hidden inside her is a terrific writer; than Skeeter, the awkward gawky girl who was never asked out on prom night and who dreams of being a writer more than a wife is clearly the oddball amongst her married socialite friends. Taking the racial divide as the core of the story, the book focuses on the plight of the colored domestic helpers working for white employers, in their own words. Some of them do have positive experiences to share but most of them echo hurt, shame and feelings of indignation on being treated as untouchables. The irony is not lost on anyone that the employers trust them with their most prized possessions – their babies and doubt them on everything else.
I can think of many attributes that make this a good book to read, the author’s clarity on what she wants to write about being one of them. The depiction of Aibileen’s pain on losing her 24 year old son occupies a few paragraphs and still says a lot about the person she is; Minny’s sense of humor and Skeeter’s perseverance, all build together to an interesting read.
The book also brings out the contrast in human nature. Elizabeth is not a very affectionate mom but she still wants more kids, Hilly organizes fundraisers to benefit poor children somewhere in the third world countries but doesn’t have a dime to spare for the loan requested by her maid for her boys’ college education. Minny’s “I don’t take any nonsense” attitude at work is a far cry from the bruises suffered at home.
The treatment dished out to Celia Foote and her blind eye to the most apparent insults tells us the human craving to fit into a particular society is nothing new. We all want to be accepted, colored or not.
In spite of such a bearing subject, the book is full of light moments; never does it get to a point where you feel like putting it down to get some air. The help tells us a story of the unfair in the society, but it also talks about hope. It gives us a glimpse of the almost inhuman treatment given out to the helpers and on the same page reveals the unabashed love and tender feelings shared by the children and their caretakers.
It is hard not to think about this book, about Aibileen and Skeeter, long after you are finished with it. That should say it all.
This is the Author’s debut novel. It took 5 years to complete, was rejected by 60 publishers and by now has roughly sold about 5 million copies. A movie based on this novel released in the year 2011 and turned out to be a huge box office success.