The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

G. P. Putnam, 2009. ISBN 978-0-399-15534-5.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 03/19/2009

Fiction: Mainstream; Fiction: Historical

I remember the early 1960s. I remember them well. Young, married and a stay-at-home mother, I spent hours glued to an old orange portable television set watching the news about a hard-to-understand topic—the Civil Rights movement. Growing up in Texas, I'd seen separate water fountains and went to segregated schools. "That's just the way it is," my folks told me. But what I was seeing on the news was different. Sit-ins, violence, the March on Washington, then, stunningly, the losses of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I observed at a distance, from Texas and Oklahoma, but the women who Kathryn Stockett writes of in her well-named novel The Help are in the middle of the turmoil in Jackson, Mississippi. Stockett skillfully tells the story of young married women, about the age I was out in Texas, and their "help," the African-American women who came in six days a week to mop the floors, change the sheets and the babies' dirty diapers, rock the toddlers, get dinner underway, and then ride a bus home to face doing it all over again for their own families. The white women do not see themselves as demanding or unkind. It seems only natural that "the help" should not use the family bathroom or share a meal at the same table.

Focusing on three of these women and using their voices, Stockett tells both their personal stories and the story of the time and the place. It is daring of the author to take the voice of not only one but two African-American women, and I read the first section with some trepidation. She pulls it off. All three of the protagonists are believable. Each has her own story and her own view.

Abileen is an older woman who salves the loss of her own child by loving a white woman's children. Minny is the mother of a large brood and wife of the abusive Leroy whom she loves anyway. Minny's fast mouth makes it hard for her to keep a job. "Miss Skeeter" (you guessed it, she's the white woman) is a tall, awkward recent graduate of the University of Mississippi who doesn't want to work in the bank and snare a husband as her mother directs; rather she dreams of writing. She mourns the disappearance of Constantine, "my one true ally," who raised her, loved her, and, now has disappeared without explanation. No one will tell what happened. She is merely gone.

Miss Skeeter persuades Abileen, then Minny, and eventually several other women to tell her their stories—what it is like to work for another person who regards you as less than equal. The cause of Hilly, self-proclaimed queen of the Junior League set, is the "Home Help Sanitation Initiative" which seeks to place separate (and outside) toilet facilities for the help in all homes. The stories unfold as the events of the world impinge—Medgar Evers is murdered in his Jackson front yard as Abileen rides the bus to her nearby home after working late one night. The women must keep their meetings a secret. None of their friends or family would understand. In spite of their differences in race, age, and experience the women bond and become dedicated to telling their stories and sharing their stories in a book that eventually, and not surprisingly, is named The Help.

This is a brave book and a serious one, but it is also lively, having its moments of lightness. Those of us who lived those years will want to read it and remember. Those who did not will want to read it and learn that, yes, once that really was the way things were.

Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Kathryn Stockett graduated from the University of Alabama. Unlike "Miss Skeeter" she did not return to Jackson but moved to New York City where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing. Today she lives with her family in Atlanta. Learn more about her on her website.

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