A Review by Stella Riunga
The Help is Kathryn Stockett’s first novel. So impressive a début was it that just two years after it was published (2009) it had been turned into a film by DreamWorks Studios. I watched it, and was impressed by how true to the book the film was. And let me tell you, you will WANT to watch Octavia Spencer in her role as Minny. She was the perfect fit!
I hesitated a while before writing the review because I thought, “It’s 2015, who hasn’t watched or heard about The Help? But then you know what they say about assumptions… so here we are.
The year is 1962 in the town of Jackson, Mississipi. Slavery is long over but the segregation between the races still exists. The book opens with an everyday domestic scene in the house of Elizabeth and Raleigh Leefolt, as narrated by their maid, Aibileen. Elizabeth’s child, Mae Mobley, is the seventeenth white child she is raising. Told in Aibileen’s calm, unhurried pace, the reader is introduced to the ladies who play bridge every Thursday. Elizabeth, Hilly and Skeeter have been friends ever since their days at the university.
Hilly Holbrook is the president of the Ladies’ League, around which most of Jackson’s social life revolves. She is bossy and opinionated, and mean to her maids. She dominates the ladies of the League, and considers herself the last word and authority in all things concerning the ladies of Jackson. Elizabeth Leefolt is a new mother and the wife of a struggling accountant. She struggles with the responsibilities of motherhood, mostly abandoning her child to Aibileen, and to keep up appearances with her well-off friends, especially Hilly. She is afraid to voice her own opinions, and bases her actions and thoughts on whatever Hilly would approve.
Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan has just completed her studies at the University of Missisipi (Ole Miss) and finds to her dismay that she doesn’t fit anywhere anymore. Not at her family’s cotton plantation, Longleaf, with her hypercritical mother who can’t wait for her to find a husband, and not with her closest friend, Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt , who are now married with children. Her dream is to be a writer, and to that end she decides to look for a job at the town newspaper. She does get a job, but it involves answering readers’ letters on cleaning queries. As she knows nothing about cleaning, she decides to enlist the help of her friend Elizabeth’s help- Aibileen. And this is where their relationship begins.
From Aibileen, we are introduced to Minny, arguably the best cook in Jackson and also the most feisty. She has been fired from job after job in the small town because of her inability to keep Rule Number Seven which she was taught by her mother: ‘No sass-mouthing.’ She has just been fired from her job as maid to Hilly Holbrook’s aged mother- Mrs Walters- and is desperate for a new position as she has four children to feed and a husband who will not be happy to hear that she got fired from yet another job.
Beneath Aibileen’s calm exterior, we learn of hurts that she is nursing. The death of her beloved son, Treelore, at his casual job has caused a seed of bitterness to grow within her, a bitterness that she is surprised will not leave. She has also had her heart hurt by her son’s father, a man who left her and their son for another woman. She is content with her life as a maid, and devotes herself to her church and to Minny, her best friend despite their age difference.
The lives of these three women intertwine when Skeeter gets the idea to write a book about maids’ experiences working for white women. She hopes that she can get an editor in new York interested enough to look at it and push for publication. Secretly, she is also hoping to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Constantine, the beloved maid who took care of her since she was a baby and vanished into thin air during Skeeter’s last year in college.
It takes a lot of convincing but finally, Aibileen agrees to tell Skeeter her story. She is later influential in getting Minny to agree to tell Skeeter her story too. The maids, and Skeeter, take incredible risks to cross the invisible barrier that has existed before any of them can remember- the line that governs the limits of social interaction between black and white, maids and employers. As racial tensions in the town and across the South heat up with the civil rights movement, they begin to see the immense importance, and danger, of telling their stories through Skeeter’s book. When one of their own ends up in jail after taking an incredible risk to see her sons through school, one by one, the maids of Jackson gather the courage to tell Skeeter their stories.
While all this scheming is going on, life continues on the surface of Jackson as it always has. Skeeter’s eyes are opened to the hypocrisy of her friends’ attitudes, especially Hilly’s, towards the invisible black people who raise their children, keep their gardens and homes clean and neat and generally make their lives easier. She and Hilly have a big fall-out over Hilly’s plan to introduce a Home Help Sanitation Initiative- to build outside toilets for use by black domestic workers. After the fallout, Skeeter finds herself alone and ostracized, with the ladies of Jackson unwilling to befriend her and in so doing, earning Hilly’s wrath.
Aibileen, in the meantime, is trying to shower on Mae Mobley the love and attention that her mother is too distracted to provide her, as well as to teach her that there is nothing wrong with black people- before the world teaches her how to hate and discriminate. Minny finds another job, but is unnerved by how different her employer is from all the other white women that she has worked for. Reluctantly, she begins to care about this strange white woman , thus breaking her own rule about detaching her emotions from the people she works for. While everyone is wary of Minny and her sharp tongue, at home her husband terrorizes her, and she finds herself unable to stand up to him and his frequent beatings. Skeeter falls in love for the very first time, despite her height and general gracelessness – but soon finds out that her ambitions and the expectations of her beau cannot co-exist.
Reading The Help is like going through the diary of someone you’ve always wanted to know about. The maids’ hidden lives- their dreams, their hurts, their ambitions, their successes- come to life as they lay bare their lives to Skeeter’s pen. Their employers are dissected by the watchful eyes of the maids who see all and say nothing, until one day their stories matter enough to be written down. Terrible injustices are revealed, as are unexpected kindnesses and affection between employers and maids. In the end, it is clear that there is a lot more to everyone- maid or employer, black or white- than meets the eye.
The voices in this book are so authentic I almost developed a southern accent reading it! I won’t spoil the ending for you- just go on and get yourself a copy.
And lastly, the quote from the movie that probably everyone who watched it remembers, taken from the scene where Aibileen asked Mae Mobley what she had taught her and Mae Mobley replies:
“You is kind, you is smart, you is important.”