Aibileen is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. She’s always taken orders quietly. No complaining. No sass. But something changed inside her the day her son died; recently, the bitterness is becoming harder and harder to hold back.
Aibileen’s best friend Minny is also a maid, and perhaps the sassiest woman in the entire state; when she’s hired by someone too new to town to know her reputation, Minny soon figures out that her boss has secrets of her own.
Then there’s Skeeter Phelan, a twenty-two-year-old white socialite who has returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She has a degree, she’s full of ambition, but without a ring on her finger, it doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere fast.
Seemingly as different from one another as they can be, these three women will nevertheless come together for a project that will put them all at risk: the writing of a tell-all book about work as a black maid in the South. Neither their lives, nor their town, will ever be the same again.
The Help is Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, and if you haven’t heard of it by now, you should probably take your head out of the sand. The popularity of the book skyrocketed last year (in keeping with the release of a movie adaption), and then it really started catching people’s attention. Including mine. By the end of the year, I’d heard so much about the book that adding it to my reading list was not even an option: it had to be there. For the sake of my sanity.
For starters, I must say that as a debut novel, The Help stands head and shoulders above the crowd. Not only is it a good book, it is a very good book, perhaps one I’d even revisit in future. Stockett knows how to write, and her story offers an enlightening look at Civil Rights era of the 1960s, and the injustices that so many blacks in the South had to endure on a daily basis.
Stockett’s cast of characters is large and colorful, and she avoids the stereotyped cutouts that many a lesser writer would’ve fallen for instantly. I’ve heard several people criticize her writing, but in all honesty, I think Stockett is exceptionally talented in this area: her prose is rich and smooth, and her dialogue is consistently authentic. There is, I believe, a weight to her pen; one which is sorely lacking in much of modern literature.
And let’s not forget the humor. The Help is not a comedy per se, but amid the poignant and the tragic, the characters still find time to laugh (and make us laugh with them). Aibileen and Minny, in particular, are full of wry and insightful observations like this:
Even though she has zero kids and nothing to do all day, [Miss Celia] is the laziest woman I’ve ever seen. Including my sister Doreena who never lifted a royal finger growing up because she had the heart defect that we later found out was a fly on the X-Ray machine. (p. 48)
As much as I enjoyed these aspects of the book, however, there were a few things I took issue with. Give me a minute and I’ll explain.
My primary complaint is that certain parts of the story felt distracting and out-of-place, disrupting the narrative flow instead of enhancing it. One scene, involving a naked man who chases Minnie and her employer around the yard, came out of nowhere, with the result that I had put the book down and just sit there for awhile, trying to figure out what the heck I had just read and why.
In another scene, Stockett takes the ill-timed opportunity to express her sympathy for the gay-rights movement. She does this through the character of Aibileen, who (for no apparent reason at all) begins reminiscing about a girly-boy she used to look after:
I wish to God I’d told John Green Dudley he ain’t going to hell. That he ain’t no sideshow freak cause he like boys. (p. 285)
This passage puzzled and annoyed me for the simple reason that it had no business being there at all. It had nothing whatsoever to do with anything; in fact, it felt like something the author went back and added later, just to show that she wasn’t no “homophobic” hick. Any writer who does that loses some of my respect, because that’s not how good writers write. Mrs. Stockett ought to have known better.
Skeeter’s romance with Stuart Whitworth was another thing that didn’t click with me. I understand the need to explore her character further, but I think it could’ve been done in a better way. As it stands, the romance seems extraneous; like it was added merely for the sake of more drama. It never interested me half as much as the main story, dealing with the maids and Skeeter’s writing.
Plus, in a book populated by colorful characters, Stuart struck me as remarkably flat: the stereotypical stud with a troubled past who has difficulty going steady. I didn’t like him at all; next to the vibrant Skeeter, he was about as memorable as a bowl of grits. Which is to say, not very.
Lastly, I did not care for the author’s dishonest savaging of Christianity. She does this primarily through the character of Skeeter, who has a rebellious streak as deep and as wide as the Marianna Trench. Hypocrisy among Christians has been, is, and will continue to be a very real issue. I don’t have a problem with discrediting that. What I have a problem with is using hypocrisy as an excuse to discredit Christianity as a whole. Mrs. Stockett seems to think this way; and by the end of the story, it’s apparent that she wants her readers to think this way, too. That Christianity is synonymous with haughty white socialites who send money to the Poor Starving Children of Africa while despising the blacks in their own town.
If all this sounds like a bunch of complaining, well, it is. I really did enjoy the book, however, and I really do recommend it. I just think it could’ve been better than it is.