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The Help


The Help

It is 1962 in Jacksonville, Mississippi. The times may be changing, but not fast enough for three women, two black and one white, in this town where the lines between the races are so rigid they don’t need to be voiced.

Aibileen has raised 17 white children in her various maid jobs, but recently she lost her own grown son. Her younger friend Minny’s sassy mouth has cost her so many positions that she doesn’t know where to turn --- yet work she must, to support her kids and avoid the dangerous wrath of her abusive husband. Skeeter is 22 and has just returned from college with a journalism degree that she treasures, but not the wedding ring her proper mother had hoped for. She is bored and restless and still grieving the sudden departure of Constantine, the black maid who raised her. Her mother won’t speak of it, and the heartbroken Skeeter, who was away at college, never even got to say goodbye.

Each of these three ladies get their turn narrating THE HELP, and first-time author Kathryn Stockett has done a marvelous job creating unique, distinct voices for them. Aibileen’s genuine love for her charges and her wisdom shine through her words. Her latest charge is Mae Mobley, the baby daughter of Skeeter’s college friend Elizabeth.  On the “get some experience” advice of a New York publisher, Skeeter applies for a job at the local paper. Given her gender and the time, she is employed to write a cleaning advice column. Of course she has never cleaned a thing in her life, so she asks Aibileen for help answering the household questions. But Skeeter has bigger ambitions and soon approaches Aibileen about a secret project: to write and hopefully publish the stories of the black maids.

The trouble is those LINES --- and the danger of crossing them. “I reckon I know pretty well what would happen if the white ladies found out we was writing about them, telling the truth a what they really like,” muses Aibileen. “Womens, they ain’t like men. A woman ain’t gone beat you with a stick… No, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with them.” It’s difficult to find maids who will risk talking to Skeeter for her project, even though their names are changed and their town is disguised. Yet as events unfold --- the assassination of Medger Evers, the jailing of one of the maids for stealing from her employer to put her son through college --- 12 maids eventually volunteer. The hardest sell is Minny, but she comes through with the outrageous story that just might protect them from retribution if the book is published.

In the meantime, the ugly duckling Skeeter begins a romance with Stuart Whitworth, the Senator’s son. But Skeeter’s college friends soon reject her when she refuses to support their club’s effort to pass a law requiring separate bathrooms for black household help, and her newfound convictions ultimately test her relationship with Stuart as well. Pressure builds and the stakes increase as Elaine Stein, the editor at Harper and Row, presses Skeeter for the finished manuscript.

This book about a book is a gem. The characters’ insights are hard won and utterly believable, and their voices are often funny and wry. Just as the political and social climate of 1962 proves ripe for Skeeter’s book, these early days of Barack Obama’s administration might give Stockett’s debut a boost. However, even without the timeliness of the racial themes, this novel would touch many hearts. THE HELP is over 400 pages long, but I didn’t want it to end.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on February 13, 2009

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

  • Publication Date: April 5, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade
  • ISBN-10: 0425232204
  • ISBN-13: 9780425232200