Thursday 23 August 2018

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

 “Books That Feature Writers”
      Several years ago I saw the movie based on this book. I remembered the title, but it must have been a disappointment, because I kept running into the novel at the library and purposely passed it by because the movie hadn’t left much of an impression.  
       Last month when the library put out a selection of books which featured a character who was a writer (this month’s Book Club theme) I saw the novel again. I hadn’t even remembered that there was a writer in the movie, but none of the other selections thrilled me, so I decided I would try it.  
        The story takes place in 1962 in Mississippi, written like the first person narrative of the three main characters, Aibileen and Minnie are black maids, who do housecleaning and cooking for two different spoiled white women, while Skeeter, the third protagonist is a rebellious young white woman, daughter of a big local cotton farmer.  Skeeter dreams of becoming a writer.  
      The two black maids, living during the era of intense segregation in the South have to daily, bury their feelings and politely cow-tow, to the whims and racial prejudices that surround them.  Aibileen, the older woman, works for Miss Leefolt, a lazy, prejudiced, status-seeking, young white mother, who ignores her toddler daughter, leaving Aibileen to love and care for for her in addition to doing all the cooking and housecleaning chores. 
       Aibileen becomes quietly pissed off upon overhearing one of the other white ladies at their weekly card game, complain to Miss Leefort that she shouldn’t allow her “Nigra” housekeeper to use the guest bathroom in her house. This comment leads Miss Leefort to have a bathroom built in the garage for her colored help, as so not to contaminate the guest bathroom, which is used by her white friends . 
        Minnie’s situation was different, Miss Celia a beautiful young white newlywed, secretly hires Minnie without telling her husband.  Miss Celia grew up poor and although she wants to be a part of the social life of the other white women, she is looked upon as being “white trash”by the other wives and can’t understand why she is never allowed to be a part of any of their committees or social functions. 
       Miss Celia doesn’t know anything about cooking or maintaining a house, so she quietly hired Minnie to teach her to cook and clean, while her husband is away at work, but Miss Celia is a real klutz at cooking and she spends most of her time looking at movie magazines in bed.  Minnie doesn’t like working secretly, but she is well paid, and Miss Celia is congenial, and unlike Minnie’s previous employers, is not racially prejudiced against her.
         Skeeter, the novel’s white protagonist, has just returned home from graduating from university.  Her mother would have much preferred her returning with a husband rather than a degree in literature.  Skeeter is very thin, tall, and frizzy-haired, not exactly the stereotype of a southern beauty.  
       The warmest relationship Skeeter has had in her life has been with the Black housekeeper the family had all during Skeeter’s life, but who mysteriously left their household while Skeeter was at university. Skeeter has aspirations of becoming a writer, and was advised by a New York publisher that she should write about something she cares deeply about. That turns out to be the racial discrimination and bigotry in her town and the way the Black maids are treated. 
        This topic is a dangerous choice, that could lead to violence and even death in the severely segregated South, not only to her, but any of the black “help” she might talk too, so the whole project has to be done secretly.   It is very difficult for Skeeter to find any black house cleaners, who are willing to risk even being seen casually talking to a White woman .
      Skeeter secretly approaches Aibileen who works for her high school friend Miss Leefort, and tells Aibileen of her book idea and begs her to tell of her experiences and help her recruit other maids.   Out of the fear of what might result if the word gets out to white society, Aibileen initially refuses, but she eventually consents, out of frustration at the way she is treated, and soon Minnie and other maids also secretly join in.   All those involved in the project experience both fear of discovery and a pride at being able to air their frustrations.
       This novel had everything I look for:  a sense of the time, place and history, interesting characters and situations, humor, tension and drama, and a storyline that kept me reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Help.

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