Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Page 24: The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is one of those rare first novels.  It has all the great ingredients you wish all novels to have: wonderful characters who face difficult and dangerous choices, a great plot, and tons of tension.  This book started slowly for me, but then took off like a rocket and kept going.

The novel is set in Jackson, Mississippi during the beginning of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.  The main characters are three women, one white and the other two black.  Skeeter is a recent college graduate from Ole Miss.  The two maids collaborate with her on a book about the relationship between black maids and their white employers.  The maids, Aibileen and Minny, face many difficult and potentially life-threatening situations for helping with the book because of the time and place they are living.  Their bravery and courage is inspiring.  The book they  write includes stories from a dozen maids who risk a great deal to take part in the secret project.  This microcosm of the south in the early 1960s explores the tightrope that both whites and blacks had to walk as part of the racist culture that had existed there for so many years.  For those of us who lived during this tumultuous era it will bring back many memories of that time, and the terrible events that occurred.  For the younger generation, it will hopefully serve as an important history and morality lesson.

This is a very good book. I'll include a review for you to read before you go out and buy it.

"Southern whites' guilt for not expressing gratitude to the black maids who raised them threatens to become a familiar refrain. But don't tell Kathryn Stockett because her first novel is a nuanced variation on the theme that strikes every note with authenticity. In a page-turner that brings new resonance to the moral issues involved, she spins a story of social awakening as seen from both sides of the American racial divide.

Newly graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in English but neither an engagement ring nor a steady boyfriend, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan returns to her parents' cotton farm in Jackson. Although it's 1962, during the early years of the civil rights movement, she is largely unaware of the tensions gathering around her town.

Skeeter is in some ways an outsider. Her friends, bridge partners and fellow members of the Junior League are married. Most subscribe to the racist attitudes of the era, mistreating and despising the black maids whom they count on to raise their children. Skeeter is not racist, but she is naive and unwittingly patronizing. When her best friend makes a political issue of not allowing the "help" to use the toilets in their employers' houses, she decides to write a book in which the community's maids -- their names disguised -- talk about their experiences. 

Fear of discovery and retribution at first keep the maids from complying, but a stalwart woman named Aibileen, who has raised and nurtured 17 white children, and her friend Minny, who keeps losing jobs because she talks back when insulted and abused, sign on with Skeeter's risky project, and eventually 10 others follow.

Aibileen and Minny share the narration with Skeeter, and one of Stockett's accomplishments is reproducing African American vernacular and racy humor without resorting to stilted dialogue. She unsparingly delineates the conditions of black servitude a century after the Civil War.

The murders of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. are seen through African American eyes, but go largely unobserved by the white community. Meanwhile, a room "full of cake-eating, Tab-drinking, cigarette-smoking women" pretentiously plan a fundraiser for the "Poor Starving Children of Africa." In general, Stockett doesn't sledgehammer her ironies, though she skirts caricature with a "white trash" woman who has married into an old Jackson family. Yet even this character is portrayed with the compassion and humor that keep the novel levitating above its serious theme." 

Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

The next Book Page should be Nelson DeMille's The Lion, but I may find something else before that.  Keep on reading.

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