Published by: Amy Einhorn/Putnam, 2009
My daughter, Candice, and I each read this book in 2010 but we never quite had enough time to sit and talk about it at length. But, now that we’ve been in Portland for nearly a month, we took the opportunity to chat. I want to share with you our thoughts.
First, for those of you who haven’t had a chance to read The Help, let me give you a short summary.
It’s 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi and Eugenia – Skeeter – Phelan has just graduated from college. She’s back home living with her parents. Skeeter’s mother would prefer she get married, but Skeeter dreams of becoming a writer.
The only job Skeeter can find is writing a column for the local newspaper. The column is all about household hints which, unfortunately, Skeeter knows nothing about.
Skeeter asks for help from Abileen, a good friend’s maid. As Skeeter spends time with Abileen, she begins to pay close attention to the huge inequities between the races. On the one hand, Abillen, who is black, is good enough to nurse and raise 17 white children, but not good enough to use the household bathroom.
Soon Skeeter is gathering information and writing about the experiences of the black maids. Of course, she needs to do it secretly. She doesn’t want her family or close friends to know what she is doing. In turn the black maids know that, if this information were to be tied to them, it could mean severe punishment and loss of income, and possibly imprisonment or death.
Our reaction to the book was mixed. To me, the story felt personal. I was about the same age as Skeeter in this time period. I taught in an all black school in Kansas City, not that much different from Jackson. Many of my teacher friends and a few parents told me stories similar to those of the maids. The Help put me right back in that time period.
Candice, on the other hand, felt it was hard to have a sense of the story today. For instance, she couldn’t relate to the dangerous aspect of what Skeeter and the maids were doing.
We both liked most of the characters in the story, which is a good thing since the story is very character driven. We both liked the character of Abileen. Candice felt that Abileen was truly the co-author of the book. I felt Abileen was the very heart of the story.
Abileen had a real passion to get all the maids to share their experiences. In turn it gave great hope to her black community. Abileen also was very wise and thoughtful in all relationships and particularly good at dealing with the needs of the children in her care.
Minny was another character that was fun to analyze. Candice was worried for Minny because of the dual threat from her abusive husband as well as her employers. Minny had a very brassy personality but she was still so vulnerable. She was always concerned she would do something that would cause her to lose her job again, and yet her brassy manner and mouth would often get her into trouble.
Minny was an excellent cook and I liked the part of the story where she secretly teaches a new bride to cook so her new husband will think she did the cooking. The poor little bride really needed a friend. While Minny could befriend her, she could never be her friend. Minny always played the maid and resisted being a peer.
We also looked at the acts of racism on the part of the white women in the story. Except for Skitter, they all held subservient positions to their husbands. Wouldn’t they work to stop making their maids subservient to them? These white women didn’t seem to see the connection.
We think Sketter was able to see the inequities the maids experienced because she didn’t want the subservient wife role for herself. Skeeter was already resisting the push to conform to predetermined roles and saw that others were
Overall, we really enjoyed reading The Help. It never dragged and was very compelling. Kathryn Stockett is a very good storyteller. It’s a story that needed to be told and should be read. Candice and I both know people who would have been sympathetic to the behavior of the while women. And, it’s still a mindset that is comfortable for far too many people.
In my opinion, acts of racism have improved since the sixties but it still exists, often in hidden or subtle ways. It’s still important to have ongoing dialogue on the subject. Reading this book can help spur discussion. I’m also very happy to hear they are making a movie based on this book and that, hopefully will create more meaningful conversations. Let’s hope Hollywood does well with this good story.
Look for The Help at your local bookstore. I’ve also seen copies at the library. It’s also available at Amazon.(I am an Amazon Associate.)