The Help by Kathryn Stockett
2009 Amy Einhorn Books
Finished on 3/25/09
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding)
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.
Seemingly 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.
In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women—mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends—view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don’t.
About the Author
Kathryn Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing, she moved to New York City, where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. This is her first novel.
I was first drawn to the attractive cover art of this book and it quickly found its way to my stack of ARCs, but it wasn't until I'd read Kay and Tara's lovely reviews that I decided the time was right to begin reading The Help. I'd been on quite a roll, reading winner after winner, and I trusted both recommendations, feeling confident I was in for another enjoyable book. And what a great book it turned out to be! The characters are fleshed out and memorable, the dialogue is convincingly believable, and I fell in love with Aibileen and Minny, often forgetting that they were characters in a novel.
Stockett is a terrific storyteller and should be very proud of her debut novel. Coming in at just under 450 pages, I almost wish it had been longer; I hated to leave these characters and longed to see what the future held in store for Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter after I turned that final page. I've been saying this a lot these past three months, but I simply couldn't put this book down and often found myself thinking about the characters when I wasn't reading. They invaded my mind and left a permanent mark on my soul. The setting and time period is one with which I am only vaguely familiar, having spent that portion of my very early childhood in Canada. We did not have maids, nor did we experience the ugly prejudices so rampant in the United States in the early sixties, and thus I cringed as I read passages such as this:
In a rare breeze, my copy of Life magazine flutters. Audrey Hepburn smiles on the cover, no sweat beading on her upper lip. I pick it up and finger the wrinkled pages, flip to the story on the Soviet Space Girl. I already know what's on the next page. Behind her face is a picture of Carl Roberts, a colored schoolteacher from Pelahatchie, forty miles from here. "In April, Carl Roberts told Washington reporters what it means to be a black man in Mississippi, calling the governor 'a pathetic man with the morals of a streetwalker.' Roberts was found cattle-branded and hung from a pecan tree."
It's difficult to write about this book without giving too much away. It's also very difficult -- painful, in fact -- to write about the terrible attitudes of that time and place. I often found myself full of shame for some of the characters represented in this story, many of whom were ignorant and closed-minded. I will say that I enjoyed all the historical references (Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., the March in Washington, D.C. etc.). I especially appreciated the manner in which Stockett dropped little bits of history into the narrative without it feeling like she was going down a list, checking off each historical tidbit as she incorporated it into her story. For example, Chapter 19 begins with the following:
It was 1963. The Space Age they're calling it. A man has circled the earth in a rocketship. They've invented a pill so married women don't have to get pregnant. A can of beer opens with a single finger instead of a can opener. Yet my parents' house is still as hot as it was in 1899, the year Great-grandfather built it.
The summer rolls behind us like a hot tar spreader. Ever colored person in Jackson gets in front a whatever tee-vee set they can find, watches Martin Luther King stand in our nation's capital and tell us he's got a dream. I'm in the church basement watching. Our own Reverend Johnson went up there to march and I find myself scanning the crowd for his face. I can't believe so many peoples is there--two-hundred-fifty thousand. And the ringer is, sixty thousand a them is white. "Mississippi and the word is two very different places," the Deacon say and we all nod cause ain't it the truth.
On the news, now Roger Sticker is reporting in front of the Jackson post office with the same stupid grin as the war reporter. "...this modern postal addressing system is called a Z-Z-ZIP code, that's right, I said Z-Z-ZIP code, that's five numbers to be written along the bottom of your envelope..."
Funny how you can take things for granted, believing they've been around forever and not just 45 years! I'd never not used a ZIP code when addressing a letter and had never stopped to think that there was in fact a time, not all that long ago, in which they didn't exist.
Suffice it to say, this is a fabulous read. I think it has incredible depth and would be a great book club choice. There's plenty to discuss and it could easily carry a meeting well into its second hour. And I love what the author says in her final words (Too Little, Too Late):
Like my feelings for Mississippi, my feelings for The Help conflict greatly. Regarding the lines between black and white women, I am afraid I have told too much. I was taught not to talk about such uncomfortable things, that it was tacky, impolite, they might hear us.
I am afraid I have told too little. Not just that life was so much worse for many black women working in the homes in Mississippi, but also that there was so much more love between white families and black domestics than I had the ink or time to portray.
What I am sure about is this: I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity. In The Help there is one line that I truly prize:
Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize,
We are just two people. Not that much separates us.
Not nearly as much as I'd thought.
This isn't simply a great book for fans of historical fiction and book clubs; it's an important work of literature that should be taught in history classes in high schools across America. Just as we should never forget the Holocaust, we should also never forget the despicable treatment of our fellow citizens.
Kudos, Kathryn! This is a superb story and one I'll be anxious to recommend to friends and customers alike. I can't wait to see what you have in store for us next!
Further praise from fellow bloggers:
THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett will definitely be one of my top reads of 2009 and it may well be "the top read". It is a marvelous book about a not so marvelous time in history and certainly about a not-at-all marvelous topic, race relations in the South. But it is so much more than that. (Kay, from My Random Acts of Reading)
What I wanted to share last week was a book that I found really excellent. So good, in fact that I'm bordering on using the 'L' word, which I don't often do. So good, that the day after I finished it, I saw it sitting on my nightstand and wished I was still reading it. That book is The Help by Kathryn Stockett and is, amazingly, her first novel. (Tara, from Books and Cooks)
I had no idea this book was close to 450 pages until I picked it up from the library. I was leery about making it to the end, but once I began - there was no stopping me, and then I didn't want it to end! (Joy, from Thoughts of Joy)