The Help by Kathryn Stockett
This is a lovely book about a subject that kind of floats like an iceberg as you’re coming toward it. On the surface you see the fresh-faced young wives of Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, but just below the surface a massive chunk of civil rights is waiting to puncture…the hull of white comfort?
On one side of the story we have a circle of white girlfriends who’ve known each other forever. They’re all in their early twenties, all married with children except for one ugly duckling who graduated without her MRS degree, Skeeter Phelan. Skeeter loves her friends and playing bridge and editing the Junior League newsletter, but she’s restless. She wants to Write. A New York editor responds to Skeeter’s resume, telling her to find a subject she cares about, something close to her heart. Skeeter takes a hard look around her and finds the first thread of her story: Constantine, the black maid who raised her and who was probably the person she loved most in the world until Skeeter’s mother fired her without explaining why.
Since her mother won’t talk about Constantine, Skeeter slowly begins to approach Constantine’s peers, who also happen to work as maids for all of Skeeter’s friends, to see if they’ll give her any information. They won’t talk to her, of course, at first, but Skeeter’s slow but steady efforts to earn the trust of one maid in particular, Aibileen, form the hub of the novel.
The author concentrates mostly on the emotional core of the story, dropping in historical details (Vietnam, Medgar Evers’ murder) for little shocks of context.
Honestly, this was the first page-turner I’ve read in a long time. Emotionally it rang really true to me. It was also somewhat horrifying to realize that the precautions Skeeter and Aibileen take to meet in secret and work on the maids’ stories make it sound like they’re living in Nazi Germany; the consequences of their “race betrayal” could truly result in both of them ending up beaten, shunned, in hiding, or dead.
I’ve read some criticism about the author using dialect for the black characters and perfect, unaccented English for the white characters, and I suppose that’s a valid complaint. That said, I found the black dialect didn’t take much effort to read, and I just assumed the white characters had Southern accents, so…?
The point being, I liked this book. Should I give it a rating? Okay, I give this book four cantaloupes for being tough on the outside, sweet on the inside, and a healthy part of a nutritious breakfast.