‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett has been looking at me in my work library for the past six months, from when we bought it as part of the Richard and Jody summer book club selection. The cover of two women in maid uniforms and a baby, plus the gurning reviews front and back, plus the massive amount of coverage online about this book put me off, along with the massive pile of to-be-reads but the other day I ‘accidentally’ sped-read the end of ‘Bog Child’ (wonderful YA book set in the North of Ireland border during the troubles in 1981 that will def be lending N (N’s mum might want to acquire a copy for her own) once her pile goes down a bit) on my lunch hour and had nothing to read on the way home. I tried to take out Neil Gaimon’s latest that won the Carnegie Gold this year.
Inexplicably, though, ‘The Help’ ended up in my handbag, and I’m very glad it did. This is the story of racial prejudice, privilege and poverty in the Deep South, Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 60s. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks aside, this is still a time where the head of the Women’s League campaigns for black maids, working way below minimum wage, raising white babies for ungrateful mistresses, to be forced to use separate toilets to their employers, to prevent them spreading their ‘germs’. This book made me so angry, mostly because people like this still exist. I have met ignorant, scared women living in the deepest darkest folds of Yorkshire (cos there really ain’t no racism quite like North Yorkshire racism) who regard anyone who isn’t as white as a threat.
The three main characters, whose voices guide us through most of the story, are as sassy and brilliant a group of women as you would hope to meet. Our heroine, Aibleen is the gentlest, most intelligent women, raising her seventeenth white child, the daughter of the despicable Miss Leefolt, childhood friend of Skeeter, who has just returned from college surprised to find her maid and best friend Constantine has been inexplicably sacked. Determined to find out what has happened to her, Skeeter strikes up a friendship with Aibleen. As her understanding of the way black women are treated by their mistresses grows, Skeeter steals the idea of Aibleen’s deceased son and begins to write a book about the conditions for black people working for whites in Jackson at the time. The atmosphere of racial tensions happening in 1961 is sure to make the book a sensation, and both Skeeter and Aibleen, together with the amazingly bold and brilliant Minny, must keep their friendship, and the book, secret at all costs.
My favourite character has to be Skeeter; though she begins her quest to tell the maid’s stories for her own self interests, in order to get a job as a writer and leave her over-bearing mother, she gradually realises her privilege and learns from this. At the beginning of the book she is a mouse, who cannot stand up to either her parents or her best friend, the town snob and society girl Hilly (possibly one of the most evil and compelling villains I’ve ever read. Whoever gets that part in the film adaptation-and they’re fools if they don’t adapt this book- is onto a winner as she would be a joy to play). Over the course of 450 pages that simply flew by we see her transform into a free-thinking radical, who grows her hair and shortens her hem and stands up not just for her rights, but those of other peoples. Loved her.
The book really is one of the best debuts I’ve read, not because of its literary merit, but because of its accessibility and the writer’s obvious passion for the subject. Not knowing anyone from Jackson, Mississippi, and being shamefully ignorant of the times there I cannot comment on the book’s accuracy or use of dialect. Like ‘Welcome to the World Baby Girl’ by Fannie Flagg, whose last book was written in the Deep South, parts of this book I felt uncomfortable with, as a white woman I understand my massive privilege and have no idea if the portrayal of the racism and ignorance in this book is even half as horrendous as it was, and still is, for black women. However, I would recommend this book without question, especially to readers who maybe wouldn’t be turned on by a more “literary” novel, but like a good yarn and want something to curl up with this winter.