I know that whatever I write in this review will never convey the content. I can happily type away about the characters and plot of ‘The Help’, but it is all for nought when the real bones of the book are in the unsettling truths and emotions that the cast will live through.
Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel is a striking story about three women and the world of Mississippi around them. Stockett describes the beauty of the state in her prose about the farmlands surrounding the quaint suburbs. Birds are flitting through the sky, Orchards are bursting with fruit and the unbearable heat seeps from the page. Her depiction of Jackson, Mississippi causes the reader to yearn to be a part of her world. But under the sheen, under the beauty is an attitude that taints everything around it. Racism.
The book is set in the 60’s, a time when segregation was the norm and where, as the book’s cover quotes, “a black maid raises a white woman’s child but isn’t trusted not to steal the silver”. We’re introduced to Aibileen, a black maid in her fifties who has moved from family to family raising the children of white women too busy with elitist society to even hug their kids. Then there’s Minnie, who, like Aibileen is a maid, but one who has moved through several families due to her fiery temper and tongue.
Finally, there’s Miss Skeeter, a white woman who begins the book as part of the elite but who watches the world and wants change in Jackson. Miss Skeeter sets out to write a book about black maids and their world, one where they are forced to use a separate toilet because of so called diseases. One where a young black man is beaten blind for using a white people toilet and one where they fear death for doing the wrong thing.
In order for Miss Skeeter to write her book, she must break down boundaries between her and the maids of her friends. They must all gather in secret and run the risk of what white people will do to them all, if their secret gets out. The book that Skeeter creates is not unlike ‘The Help’. A book that doesn’t sugar coat what happened during the times where black people suffered daily, hourly humiliations at the hands of the wealthy.
What Kathryn Stockett achieves so well is making the reader feel uncomfortable, not just by telling the stories of these women, but by making you remember that this actually happened. I consciously squirmed and shook my head at the attitudes of the women (and men) in the novel. It helps to create a concrete world in which you believe every word that Stockett writes. Thankfully Stockett knows her subject well having been raised by a black maid when she was younger. In fact judging be her author notes, Miss Skeeter seems very familiar to herself.
Told in a first person perspective, you can relate to the characters very well. Their pain becomes yours, their pleasure creates a smile on your face and their tears create anger. The author heightens the connection between you and the cast by writing with a southern dialect and although it may be hard for some readers to grasp, it delivers a great authenticity – ” I want to yell so loud that Baby Girl can hear me that dirty ain’t a color, disease ain’t the Negro side a town”.
‘The Help’ is a wonderful novel that keeps a pace built on tension. The ending is a little anticlimactic and may leave people wanting, but it’s likely that Stockett is already working on a sequel story judging by the last page. Despite all the sadness and anger, it’s an uplifting book about hope and humanity. Admittedly it does make me sad that the world has lived through such times and, perhaps more sadly, still does in places.
‘The Help’ is simply one of the most important books of the last decade. There are many words I could use for this summary, but it is perhaps best left to the author herself. Kathryn Stockett’s favourite line sums up the book and the message it delivers, “Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realise, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much I’d thought.”