Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan has just returned from college. She has dreams of becoming a writer, but her mother thinks she should settle down and get married. That's what all of her friends in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi have already done, but Skeeter wants to do something important with her life. She misses her family's former maid, Constantine, who mysteriously disappeared while Skeeter was away at school. When Skeeter gets a job as a cleaning advice columnist for the local newspaper, something she knows nothing about, she turns to her friend's maid, Aibileen, for help, also hoping that she might tell her what became of Constantine.
Aibileen Clark survived the tragic death of her son with the help of her best friend, Minny. Now she has returned to work, and is raising her seventeenth white child, a little girl whom she adores. She's happy to help Skeeter with her advice column, but when Skeeter comes up with the idea of writing a book from the perspective of the maids, that's a whole different project that she isn't too sure about. After giving it some thought, Aibileen agrees to the idea, and she and Skeeter begin a partnership that turns into a deep friendship.
Minny Jackson is a sharp-tongued woman who is trying to help support her five children. Her mouth has gotten her into trouble many times, but when her latest employer fires her and begins spreading vicious lies about her stealing, Minny has had enough. She's dying to tell her stories even though at the same time, she's terrified of what her abusive husband and the population at large might do to her if they found out.
Together, these three women embark on a seemingly impossible journey to tell the world their stories of love and hate, hardships and joy while building an indelible friendship that transcends the racial barriers that others have erected.
More than two years after its original release, The Help is still an incredibly popular book. I'm not usually quick to jump on the bandwagon of the hot book of the moment, and I might not have even read The Help except that it was chosen as a book club read for the GoodReads Readers Against Prejudice and Racism group to which I belong. I'm so glad that it was, because it encouraged me to pick it up. Now that I've read it, I can say unequivocally that it lived up to the hype and is one of the best books that I've ever read. The Help is a very empowering story for women, for minorities, for anyone who has ever felt looked down upon for not being "good enough." It also carries a strong message about standing up for what you believe in no matter the cost, and pursuing your dreams even when they may seem out of reach. The Help is quite simply a beautiful book that I know will linger in my memory for a long time to come.
Having been raised in the mid-west and now living in the west, I have to say that Southern culture, especially in the historical context, is something of a curiosity to me. I would expect the rich to have maids, but it's interesting that even middle class white families in the South employed black maids. In The Help, the dynamic between these black maids and their white ladies is a richly complex, multi-layered dichotomy of love and hate. Some white ladies, like Hilly, were so blinded to their own faults and prejudices that they never change. It angered me when Hilly started pushing her agenda of segregated bathrooms for the household help by acting like the blacks were ridden with diseases, because it was nothing short of ignorance and fear talking. Other white ladies loved their maids like a mother, sister, or best friend, and even if they couldn't overtly admit it due to the deeply seated racism in the South, they showed it through their loyalty. Some of the black maids understandably could hardly stand the white ladies they worked for, and even if they were treated fairly, had often been taught not to get personally involved with them. Still, many of these maids also developed a deep affection for their employers or at the very least their children. These beautiful, heartfelt relationships brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion while reading this book, and yet so could all the horrific, heartbreaking things that were happening in the black community because of hate.
Skeeter is a young woman who I could relate to. She thinks of herself as unattractive, because she's taller than most girls, rather plain and has frizzy hair that won't behave, but inside she is full of passion and spirit. Skeeter is very intelligent to the point that I could almost see the wheels turning in her head. Society has told her what she can and can't think, and be, as a woman. She feels like she doesn't have much of a choice in the matter, and yet she longs to break free from that mold to do something bold. Skeeter's family's old maid, Constantine, taught her some very valuable lessons about believing in herself that I think in part, fueled her dreams of becoming a writer. She's searching for that elusive, original idea, and when it comes to her, she tenaciously keeps trying even though it doesn't seem like it's going to work out. In spite of being white, she also faces some potential danger and must work on her project in secret. While she covertly writes what is on her heart, Skeeter experiences her first love. Even though her love interest, Stuart, realized that she wasn't like other women, I don't think he ever fully appreciated the precious jewel he had in his grasp.
Aibileen is a maid to one of Skeeter's best friends, Elizabeth, and she is the first to agree to help Skeeter with her book. Aibileen is a woman who has known hardship and heartbreak, but with the help of her best friend, Minny, she was able to overcome and keep going with life. She is a wonderful, inspiring woman who I'd be proud to have as a mother. In fact, she was more of a mother to many of the seventeen white babies she raised than their own mothers were. That includes Elizabeth's daughter, Mae Mobley, who Elizabeth largely ignores. It just warmed my heart how Aibileen encouraged Mae Mobley by telling her she was good, and smart, and important when her mother scolded and tore her down. I also loved the "secret stories" they shared. Aibileen was a very brave woman to not only take part in Skeeter's book but recruit others to help too. She was there every step of the way and became a true friend to Skeeter when her other "friends" abandoned her.
Minny is a lady with a hard exterior who can sometime seem abrasive. With five kids and an abusive husband, she has a lot on her plate, but she works hard to take care of her family. Minny has a bit of a temper and a smart mouth that has gotten her in trouble with her employers more then once. Minny was a character who frequently cracked me up. Through a large part of the book, she kept a big smile on my face, because I found her honesty quite refreshing. She certainly doesn't mince words. When she starts working for Celia, it's a whole new experience for her. Minny calls her "crazy lady," and says she doesn't care about her, but her actions speak louder than words. It was funny how she played along, keeping Celia's secret about hiring her, and later it was very touching when she sat with her through a tragedy and kept an even bigger secret. I actually liked Celia and wish that her reasons for keeping so many secrets from a husband who obviously adored her were clearer. I think she just had a case of really low self-esteem, and was desperately in need of a friend, and ultimately, Minny became that friend even though she tried to act like she wasn't.
Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are three characters who I will not soon forget. Throughout the course of the story, they all, in their own way and time, came to the realization that they could take control of their lives and follow their dreams to a better place. These women have three very different personalities and yet I had no trouble relating to each one in turn as the author alternates between their first-person perspectives. These three ladies touched my heart in a very profound way, to the point that it's almost like they actually exist somewhere. Kathryn Stockett has an amazing talent for drawing me into the story and making me really care about each one of them. I truly became invested in what became of them and what life had in store for them. It was rather ingenious how the author sometimes ended a section with a mini-cliffhanger. It really kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next. The sense of fear surrounding Skeeter's project was palpable, as was the the general danger for blacks in the South during the peak of the civil rights era. The author's mention of several real-life events added to the sense of place and time to help make the story come to life.
The Help was an amazing book that I can't say enough good things about. In a sea of sameness, this books is a gem of originality. I'm astounded that this is Kathryn Stockett's first and only novel to date. I have no idea what she might have planned for the future, but I know for now, it will be hard saying goodbye to Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. If Ms. Stockett writes anything else for these ladies, or anything else at all, I'll be there to buy it, but in the meantime, it will be difficult to move on to another book after such a wonderful read. The Help is definitely a book that I would recommend to everyone, especially women, and it is a book that without a doubt will be going on my keeper shelf.
The Hope Chest Reviews on Facebook