Monday, October 18, 2010

Escape to the Past With: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I think I must be the last person on the planet to read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It’s been on my to-read list for a long time, and I finally moved it up to the top when a friend lent me her copy. It hardly needs resummarizing, but here goes:

Set in 1960's Jackson, Mississippi, the book is told primarily from the point of view of three women. Eugenia Phelan (Miss Skeeter) is a well-brought-up white woman in her early twenties who went off to Ole Miss to earn her Mrs. but graduated instead. She returns home to find things in her old hometown...unsettling. In large part this is due to the absence of the woman who used to be her family’s maid. Skeeter had been practically raised by Constantine, who has vanished seemingly without a trace. But Skeeter is upset by more than just this mysterious disappearance. She is beginning to find the company of her old friends stifling. She watches the way her one-time best friend Hilly treats the people around her and is appalled. Hilly is a queen bee/mean girl, but in the racially charged context of this book, her meanness is even more sinister. Skeeter finds she no longer wants to be like her old friends. Yet distancing herself from them leaves her socially isolated—which she finds increasingly uncomfortable. What options does a single girl of her age and social class have for making new friends or finding employment in Jackson? Without disgracing her family altogether? Her world starts to look very claustrophobic.

The next POV character is Abilene, one of the older members of the group of domestic "help" followed in the book. She is educated and, like Skeeter, enjoys writing. However, if Skeeter’s opportunities for advancement are bleak, Abilene’s are nonexistent. Since the death of her only son, she has let a wall grow around her. Still, she is able to nurture her charge, the child of one of Skeeter’s old friends, with a pure and beautiful love that gives the reader a glimpse of why Skeeter was so devoted to Constantine.

Minnie is the third main voice in the book, another one of the help, a woman of strength and generosity, as well as a whole lot of anger that causes her to be fired from job after job.

These women’s worlds change when Skeeter decides to write a book telling the stories of Jackson’s maids– all she needs is for them to agree to let their voices be heard. It is an achingly brave undertaking. They have everything to lose, and don’t realistically expect to gain anything.

Kathryn Stockett takes us inside closed minds and let's us see how bigotry tries to defend itself. It isn't easy to read about the uglier side of human nature, but this is a story that is beautifully told. I’m glad I finally moved it to the top of my pile. Have you read it yet?