R&R 072 | The Help
First published in: 2009
This edition: Amy Einhorn Books / Penguin Putnam 2009
Cover illustration by Ellen Granter
When Skeeter, a young female aspiring writer, approaches another woman named Aibileen about starting a project together, well. It sounds harmless. Two women meeting up regularly, sharing thoughts.
Except that Skeeter is a white woman. Aibileen is African-American, as is Minny, Aibileen's friend (and another woman to join in on the project). And it's the sixties.
…in Jackson, Mississippi.
It would be the understatement of the century to say African-Americans had it rough in those days, in that place (or any place for that matter). It would be a further understatement to say that white people who were fighting for better rights for African-Americans also had a lot to battle up against.
Fearing everything, from their standing in society to their lives, Skeeter, Minny and Aibileen bravely prepare to start, and continue their project.
From the moment I started the book, I wanted to know how it would end; I just kept skipping twenty-odd pages ahead to see what would happen. I found myself really engaged in this book; it brought out my compassion and made me care so much about everyone's lives.
For a debuting novelist, Kathryn Stockett has written a novel which seems full of experience. Having been raised in Jackson herself, Stockett knows what she is writing about and she has put a lot of herself and her childhood in this novel and its characters. Because when I read Skeeter's chapters, I read Kathryn Stockett's chapters, it seems.
And there is so much affection as she tells the stories belonging to Aibileen and Minny. There's a respect and love there which must stem from her feelings for the African-American woman who raised her when Stockett was a child growing up in Jackson, herself. Stockett's empathy regarding these women is clean and clear – and always respectful.
The voices of Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are all unique and distinct, but treated with the same dignity. They are not as stereotypical as they could have been (Aibileen and Minny are not demeaned like they're both a Mammy of Gone with the Wind; Skeeter is not entitled like Scarlet O'Hara, either). Aibileen and Minny are strong and intelligent women; Skeeter is reaching out to them for the right reasons, and is far from naive.
The women have guts in their own way, not just because they're starting this project together. No, they're opinionated and feisty. I love them all, equally. And I felt for them in every way.
Especially for Celia, who has to be my favourite character; she doesn't see that line dividing black and white and to me she in a way embodies (along with her actions) what this book is all about. That these are women, and they have to stick together. The Help isn't just about about race; it's a book about and for women everywhere (though it would be good for men to read this, too).
I did shed a tear every now and then, and rejoiced when the women stood up for themselves – and for each other. The Help empowers and celebrates the bonds between women. Even though this book is fictional, the story rings true – with true power. The Help deserves to be on a shelf next to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. That's how you'll find both books in my book case, anyway. Next to each other, both equally strong and equally deserving.
R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008, 2009 and beyond