“What you think you gone change with this? What law you want to reform so it say you got to be nice to your maid?”
“Now hold on,” I say. “I’m not trying to change any laws here. I’m just talking about attitudes and–“
“You know what’ll happen if people catch us? Forget the time I accidentally use the wrong changing room at McRae’s women’s wear. I’d have guns pointing at my house.”
(from The Help, page 164)
The Help, my book club’s October pick, is a multifaceted novel about race and class in Jackson, Mississippi, during the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. Kathryn Stockett tells the story of black maids and the white women for whom they work through the eyes of three women: Skeeter, the daughter of a white cotton farmer who returns from college to find she no longer fits in because she’d rather be a writer than a wife and mother; Aibileen, a black maid who works for one of Skeeter’s best friends, Elizabeth, and spends much of her time showering Elizabeth’s neglected daughter with love and affection; and Minny, a black maid whose outspoken ways and the Terrible Awful Thing she did to Hilly, another friend of Skeeter’s, makes it nearly impossible for her to find another job in the town.
Skeeter, longing to know why Constantine, the maid who was like a mother to her, left without explanation, wants to interview some of the town’s black maids about what it’s like working for their white employers. She begins to notice how her friends treat their maids, and like the reader, doesn’t understand why the woman you trust to raise your children, make all your meals, do the laundry, and polish the silver needs a bathroom in the garage to prevent the spread of “colored diseases.” But there is so much she doesn’t understand, and while Aibileen and Minny may have a lot to say about their jobs, they have reason to fear the consequences. After all, blacks are still being lynched for speaking out.
While much of the book is about the daily routines of the maids and their interactions with their white employers, Stockett also touches on class differences among whites and contrasts the relationships children have with their parents to the relationships they have with their maids. Her characters are well developed, and she does a good job emphasizing the complexity of race relations and how even those who believe things should change feel they can’t do anything about it, whether out of fear of being ostracized, fear for their lives, or because of their political aspirations.
The Girl (age 12) and I enjoyed The Help overall, but we both thought it dragged at times, and it took us awhile to get used to the dialect Stockett uses for the black maids. It seems like a story that could have happened at that time, but I think it’s important to remember (and I pointed this out to The Girl while we read) that the book is written by a white author — and even though she’s from the South and had a black maid, she can never truly know what it’s like to be in their shoes. But it is fiction, after all.
The Help was a hit with the book club. It certainly provided numerous talking points, even beyond the obvious race, class, and point-of-view issues. We discussed everything from the two-hour-long hair treatment Skeeter endured to how much we hated Hilly, and we gobbled up the numerous Southern dishes one of the members laid out for the occasion. (Check out Serena’s in-depth book club wrap-up here)
The Help is a book that really gets you thinking, especially about how we treat one another. Each of the characters affected me in some way, and I think Hilly is one of the most infuriating characters I’ve ever come across. It’s not a book you easily forget, and that alone makes it a worthwhile read.
Disclosure: The Help is from my personal library.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.