“I guess that’s when I understood what shame was and the color of it too. Shame ain’t black, like dirt, like I always thought it was. Shame be the color of a new white uniform your mother ironed all night to pay for,white without a smudge or a speck a work-dirt on it.” (151)
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, was published in 2009 and is 444 pages. I bought the book after several book clubs I had visited recommended it to me. Though it broke my heart on every page, it was my favorite book of the year.
The story takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, as civil rights issues are bubbling all over the country in the form of riots, sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. In it, two black housekeepers help a young white woman write a book about what it’s like for black women in the south. While they write it, their bonds with each other and the secrets they reveal sow the seeds that forever change the way blacks and whites, mothers and daughters, and friends and acquaintances relate to each other.
Stockett tells the story through first person narrators that change in each chapter. Each woman’s voice is strong and distinct, and each character is fully realized and in full color. I’m not usually a fan of heavy dialect, but it was done well here, and added a lot to my understanding of the characters.
Aibileen is a black woman in her mid-fifties, and is the strongest voice in the novel. Her son died tragically, and her greatest joy is caring for the children of the white women she works for. She loves the children while they’re young, and tries to leave for new employment before they stop looking up to her and start talking down to her. Her accounts of her employer, Miss Leefolt’s, poor treatment of her own daughter are hard to read, but her touching relationship with the child provides some of the sweeter moments in the book.
Minny is an overweight, sassy, black housekeeper, and her voice provides much-needed comic relief, in spite of her story being one of the hardest. She tries to stay pregnant since it’s the only time her husband doesn’t beat her. Against her better judgement, Minny finds herself in the unusual position of developing a friendship with her white employer. In spite of her mistrust of Skeeter, the white journalist, she helps Skeeter and Aibileen in exposing the white women of Jackson.
Skeeter, or Eugenia as her mother would prefer her to be known, is the daughter of a “proper” southern family who’d be mortified to learn that their daughter is helping blacks expose whites instead of trying to land a husband. Skeeter thinks she’ll write a little piece for a big, New York editor, but gets a lot more than she bargains for once she starts interviewing the black housekeepers. What she learns changes all of their lives–not necessarily for the easier, but certainly for the better.
The Help does what all great historical fiction does by exposing and animating a place in time, and showing its significance to the present. It brings to light old truths in new ways, and makes the reader examine her own relationship to the events. I highly recommend this book whose main message is one worth a lot of thought:
“We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.” (418)