Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver. Some lines will never be crossed. Aibileen is a black maid: smart, regal, and raising her seventeenth white child. Yet something shifted inside Aibileen the day her own son died while his bosses looked the other way. Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is by some way the sassiest woman in Mississippi. But even her extraordinary cooking won’t protect Minny from the consequences of her tongue. Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter returns home with a degree and a head full of hope, but her mother will not be happy until there’s a ring on her finger. Seeking solace with Constantine, the beloved maid who raised her, Skeeter finds she has gone. But why will no one tell her where? Seemingly as different as can be, Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny’s lives converge over a clandestine project that will not only put them all at risk but also change the town of Jackson for ever. But why? And for what? The Help is a deeply moving, timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we won’t. It is about how women, whether mothers or daughters, the help or the boss, relate to each other- and that terrible feeling that those who look after your children may understand them, even love them, better than you…
Before I read this book everyone told me it was ‘amazing’, so I began reading with interest. I usually find that it is better not to believe the hype, but in this case I finished the book and would have to say yes, I found it amazing!
So what makes it great? Well, the controversial subject matter is fascinating to read about. The previously untold stories of black women working for white women in 1960’s America with all the issues that brings with it; the love, the hate, the hypocrisy, double standards, the need for each other and yet mutual dislike or disdain. This story shows the passion of the women on both sides of the fence and is, to me at least, a revelation about what life was really like. I know lots about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, I know about the not being allowed on buses and to the same Universities and so on, but this book makes it real, and makes the lives of ordinary people real. This is about the day to day lives of those who had to endure hardship and intolerance and yet just got on with living. It is about civil rights and about a group of women who are brave enough to choose to fight in their own way. And it is about the white woman that gave them this opportunity.
The three main characters, Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny, make a fascinating group. They are all so different and come to be so dependent on each other. Each has their own individual problems in their lives, as well as the problems that draw them together. They are characters you are drawn to, and want to know better. The journey they undertake together (and also in so many ways, apart) will change all of them forever. This is not only in fighting for their right to be heard and respected, but also having great effect on their personal concerns and circumstances.
The more minor characters also have a depth and fullness to them. Miss Hilly is an awful, bigoted, woman. She is blind to her own hypocrisy and has a mean streak that touches anyone who stands in her way, or doesn’t fit in with her narrow minded views. Celia Foote appears to be a bimbo, but is trying to survive in a society that is as alien to her as it is to the black women, as she used to be ‘white trash’ herself. Elizabeth Leefolt is just a best friend, but gets caught in the fallout between Miss Hilly and Skeeter as they take opposing sides in this fight for civil rights. She shows how hard it can be to be brave and stand up for yourself, or sometimes even to understand the cause when everyone around you thinks that this is the way life is supposed to be. These characters all embody the values, ideals and principles (or what we might consider the lack thereof) of their time, but they also resonate today bringing to mind people you know, or stories we hear. They tell us that if we look we can see many of these things happening today.
The other thing that I loved about this book was that it had the capacity to make me laugh, to well up, and to be angry, and sometimes all over the same incident. Stories that can engage that kind of reaction I always find compelling. The novel is written with such deftness and assurance, you would never realise it is Stockett’s debut novel.
Verdict: I don’t know how this book could be any better. A brilliant, perceptive, innovative handling of a very sensitive subject. Having borrowed this book I am sure I am going to have to go out and buy it, and then lend it to as many people as possible!
Reviewed by Helen