A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’m always a little wary of blockbusters. If I’m late to the party, I wonder if they can live up to the hype. Hype, for me, is the death knell for a book that I might otherwise have loved. The Help is an exception to that rule.
A surprise hit, it has since been made into a film, but I would urge you to read the book first. It is really wonderful. So wonderful I couldn’t even put it down when it made me tear up on the train after work one evening.
The story is told by three characters – Minny, the "sass-talking" maid who has been fired from 19 jobs; Aibileen, who is mourning the death of her own son and who leaves her job every time the children reach an age where they notice the lines society has drawn between them; and Miss Skeeter, a white graduate whose desire to be a writer sparks it all. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, the voices are brilliantly clear. Stockett captures the accents perfectly on the page, without sacrificing readability:
Miss Leefolt all in a tizzy. She and Mister Leefolt don’t belong to no swim club, not even the dinky Baltimore pool. Miss Hilly call this morning and ask if she and Baby Girl want to go swimming at the Jackson Country Club and that’s an invitation Miss Leefolt ain’t had but once or twice. I probably been there more times than she has.
Miss Skeeter, too tall, too frizzy-haired to find herself a husband, focuses on becoming a writer. She gets to know her friend’s maid Aibileen when she gets the job of writing the Miss Myrna cleaning column in the local newspaper. Knowing nothing about cleaning as she has a maid herself, she turns to Aibileen to answer the questions for her. Still smarting from the apparent resignation of her childhood maid, Constantine, while she was at college, Skeeter has never felt quite the same way about "the help" as her friends and family. But it is her determination to write that actually spurs her onto her course of action – an editor tells her that a book from the maids’ point of view might be worth publishing, so Skeeter is galvanised into action.
That for me is the beauty of this book. I expected Skeeter to be a natural Civil Rights sympathiser, but that is not how she starts out. Yes, she shies away from her friend Hilly’s extreme views – Hilly is determined that every home in Jackson will have a separate bathroom for their maids – and makes excuses not to print her initiative in the newspaper, but otherwise she remains silent. She does not challenge the status quo and even with her, there are moments that make you wince. It is only writing the book that makes her see the true inequality about her – hearing the stories of the maids, the good and the bad, makes her see clearly that they are all the same, just women.
While Hilly Holbrook is the undoubted villainess of the book, no one is painted starkly. Hilly, despite her vindictiveness, her racism, cannot be faulted as a mother. She is a devoted and affectionate mother to her children, unlike Elizabeth Leefolt who can barely look at her own daughter. Stockett is also careful to point out that there are some good stories – like the white woman who paid her maid’s children through college or the lady who drove her maid to the hospital.
It still makes for an uncomfortable and frustrating read, not least because in her Afterword she reveals that she was raised by an African American maid as her mother was often away. The world of Jackson, Mississippi felt a world away so it was something of a shock to have it extend into the present. And yes, at times I did find the book a little too simplistic in its views – racism is a complex issue and hard to get across on the page.
I would urge you to read this book because despite the changes in the years since this book was set, I feel it still has something to teach us, even if it’s only to look at the world around you a little differently.
Penguin, 2010. ISBN-10:0141039280. 464pp.