Friday, March 19, 2010
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Sometimes, I am suspicious of hot-selling fiction, the type that is "perfect for book discussion groups." I am frequently disappointed, like with The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which many, many people love and I absolutely hated. But darn it all, the reason that The Help is so popular is because it's really, really good. If you have not read it, please go out and put your name on the waiting list at the library, or put it on your birthday list, or go buy it, because you will not be sorry.
Oh, but what is this book about, by the way? Well. 1962, Jackson, Mississippi. Hmmm, could this be about race relations? Why, of course! But so well done! There are three main characters, and different chapters and sections are told from all three perspectives. The first two sections are from the viewpoints of two African-American women, Aibileen and Minny, who are good friends and are both working as maids for wealthy white women, Junior-league types. Aibileen is the maid and surrogate mother for a sweet little girl with a pretty horrible young mother, Elizabeth Leefolt -- she is the seventeenth child Aibileen has raised for other people. Her friend Minny is working for the mother of Mrs. Leefolt's best friend Hilly Holbrook, who is an evil, racist witch. Minny has a hard time keeping her opinions to herself, which makes it tough to find employment.
The third section is the viewpoint of Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, who is a young white lady with a trust fund, and a recent graduate of Ole Miss, where she was Hilly's roommate. Unlike Hilly and Elizabeth, Skeeter did not go to college to get her MRS degree. She is bored beyond belief with bridge games and the Junior League, which is pretty much what young rich white women did back then, if they weren't married. She wants to be a writer, not a housewife, and more than anything, she wants to find out what happened to her beloved Constantine, who was her family's housekeeper and the person she loved best in the world. Constantine disappeared while she was away at college and no one is talking, not even the other maids in town like Aibileen.
So, with the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, the lives of these three women become entangled. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that they become involved in a project that has the potential to turn Jackson society upside down. We get to know them and their families, and quite a few secrets as well.
These characters were so believable, and so distinctive, and the plot was so interesting that I could not put this book down. The Help is about 440 pages and I read it all in one day. Seriously. The plot really moved, and the characters so well drawn that they seemed real to me -- I wish Ms. Stockett would write a sequel so I could find out what happened to everyone. Plus there's some really funny stuff in it. I can absolutely understand why this book is so popular -- not only is it a great study of race relations, it's about friendships, and trust, and families, and thank God I didn't grow up in the South back then. I can't imagine how awful it must have been as an African-American person at that time. I hope my book group manages to get enough copies to discuss it soon, because I can't wait to talk to people about this book. Until then I'll just have to recommend it to complete strangers.