REVIEWING


The Help

by Kathryn Stockett


Amy Einhorn Books | Putnam, 2009 | 464 pp

Reviewed by Janet Garber


the help cover

Miss Skeeter’s been buzzing around her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, trying to survive, while hoping she doesn’t inadvertently sting the wrong people. The year is 1963 and the times, they are a-changin,’ for sure. Medgar Evers just got whacked, the march on Washington with Martin Luther King’s sharing his dreams is about to occur, and then President Kennedy. . . Tensions are high and everyone is feeling threatened. But in Skeeter’s world, the white “haves” are carrying on pretty much as they always have and the “have nots” and their black maids, are toeing the line.

Skeeter is woefully underemployed, despite her BA in Journalism from Ole Miss, writing a Household Hints column for the local paper, a feat she can only accomplish by cribbing all the ideas from her friend’s maid, Aibileen. Still smarting from the sudden disappearance of the maid who raised her, Skeeter starts slowly realizing that the help have lives too – and, even more interestingly, they have engaging stories to tell.

It takes two years for her, and about a dozen of the town’s maids, to secretly collaborate on a tell-all book about the private lives of the white folks in town and their relations with their black help. Fearing repercussions that can be deadly – a grandson is blinded and almost beaten to death for mistakenly using the public restroom reserved for whites – she and the black women keep at it nonetheless

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The idea of finally “telling it like it is” proves a powerful stimulant. The Help is published anonymously but with such telling details that the city and populace is easily recognizable as Jackson, MS., but they have “insurance,” a cleverly planted detail so gruesome that they are betting no one will dare own up to it

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The story line can’t help but be engaging – we go back less than 50 years and are dropped into a world that Boomers can remember, full of passion/debate for civil rights, ending the war in Vietnam, and emerging feminism. Not many of us spent those years in the deep South, however, and it is a revelation to see the hypocrisy that abounds there: It’s acceptable for your maid to kiss and hug and maybe even nurse your babies while tending house and cooking for you, but she better not plant her tush on the family toilet! She might spread her “Nigra diseases.”

The characters of the women, black and white, are what make The Help so appealing, and what has propelled Kathryn Stockett’s novel into one of the best selling novels in years. We spend most of our time with Skeeter (a/k/a Eugenia Phelan), a gawky member of the Junior League who’s been marked by her loving relationship with her childhood maid, Constantine and Aibileen, who cares for the two children of the cold-as-ice, withholding mother, Elizabeth, and Minny, a “sass-mouth” who has managed to get herself fired at least 19 times but now lucks out working for clueless Celia, who hails from rural Sugar Ditch, dresses like a trollop, and can’t understand why the other ladies shun her.

We hear the voices of each of the main characters and see the circumscribed circles they turn in. As they change by taking small steps outside the circles and start leaning on one another, they come into their own for the first time in their lives. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

What they discover by book’s end is that love knows no boundaries and respects no lines, particularly the love between women, and between women and children. “For women, we realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I thought.” These are radical ideas in Mississippi in 1963, where a black person even looking a white person in the eyes, or sitting down with them at a kitchen table, can be tantamount to treason

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We’re left with some questions and dialogue we’d like to have with the characters: Skeeter, why does it take you so long to see the inequities and downright evil-doings of your best friends and sorority sisters? What are you doing living at home at age 23? When are you going to straighten your mother out? Aibileen and Minny: Would you and the other maids really risk having your tongues cut out and worse? These questions to “real” people ultimately draw us further into the story.

Miss Stocketts’ first book, like a roller coaster, takes the reader along on a slightly bumpy ride to a place we recognize as our future. There’s real fear in this world, but we already know the future is bound to be a happier and safer place for them, and for us, than this present world, so we can lean back and rejoice in the perfectly rendered happy ending.

Janet Garber is a freelance writer living in New York City.



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