Author: Kathryn Stockett
Published By: Berkley Books
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
After seeing the movie in the theaters and loving every second of it, I decided that I had to get my hands on a copy of the book that started it all. After all, I had been told that The Help by Kathryn Stockett was an excellent novel and that reading the book would be an even more enjoyable experience than seeing the film adaptation. I couldn’t wait to read it.
When Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns home to Jackson, Mississippi, she realizes that she no longer fits in. While most girls her age in the early 1960s are going to college to find a husband, Skeeter went to find an education. Unlike most of her friends, Skeeter is looking forward to earning a living as a writer or editor, instead of tending a husband and home.
Her societal views are also different. Sure, she sees the obvious differences between herself and “the help,” but she doesn’t agree with how black people are being treated in the South. She doesn’t understand the segregation laws and, in fact, counts herself lucky to have been raised by a black woman named Constantine. Upon returning home to find Constantine gone and her family unwilling to tell her the truth as to why, Skeeter is furious.
Landing a job writing a housekeeping help article at the local paper, Skeeter knows she wants more. After speaking at length to her friend’s maid, Aibileen, and at the advice of her mentor, Skeeter decides to take on a project no one has ever attempted before. Skeeter will write what it is really like to be a black woman working for the white families of Jackson, Mississippi. All she has to do is compile about twelve interviews with the help, right? Easier said than done in 1960s Mississippi, when Civil Rights activists and those who associate with them are beaten, jailed, or worse.
The Help is written in essentially three points of view (with a fourth, third-person account appearing toward the end). The first point of view we hear is that of Aibileen Clark, a reserved and well-respected black maid and nanny who always makes certain to leave employment as soon as the children she is raising get the idea that white is better than black. Then we have Minny Jackson, an outspoken black maid who has lost many a job to her inability to keep her opinions to herself. And then there is Skeeter Phelan whose wish to become a writer takes her on a journey of discovery - of those around her and of herself.
As the book project progresses, we see a definite growth in each of the characters. Aibileen begins to believe in herself and her abilities outside of housekeeping and child-rearing. Minny realizes that there are some who actually appreciate her outspoken nature. She also realizes that she doesn’t have to be anyone’s punching bag, finally believing in a world where she can live and work in an atmosphere of kindness. Skeeter Phelan does the most growth here. When she starts this project, she is already outraged at the segregation in her state. However, in an effort to help the cause, Skeeter makes herself an outcast of society while still managing to maintain her dignity. It’s a hard road chosen, but one that each character benefits from in the end.
The most important message to be found in this book is one that people still seem to be ignoring, this far removed from the Civil Rights Movement of decades past - the fact that, despite our outward appearances, we are not all that different. We all have the same dreams and desires; the same hopes and fears; the same need to be loved and give love. A shame that even after all these years and the advancements this civilization has made, we still can’t seem to look past outward differences and still seek to push those who are different from us away.
The idea that The Help is Katrhyn Stockett’s debut novel is amazing to me. This novel is written as if by someone who has spent years as a writer and knows exactly how to draw her readers in. The characters are intriguing people that we can relate to on many levels. It’s fun to see the relationships between these characters grow. We become invested in their outcome and hope that their book is a success and that this success doesn’t lead to their downfall.
The descriptiveness of Stockett’s writing puts the reader right there in Jackson, Mississippi in the mid-60s. You can picture the cloying prettiness of the affluent homes, the harshness of Mississippi summers, the smell of Minny’s cooking. Your right there in the story, living it with the characters. You may even find yourself looking over your shoulder, believing that you, too, are in on the secret project Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are working on.
The Help is an incredible read - fast because it is so captivating. If there is any historical fiction novel on your must read list, The Help by Kathryn Stockett should be at the top of that list.