Kathryn Stockett's THE HELP is one of the most memorable books I've read in a long time. I read a review of it in Entertainment Weekly when it first came out. The review was a rave, but the description of the book was vague enough that I just didn't "get it." I put it on my list of "read when nothing else is jumping off the shelf at me." Stupid, stupid, stupid. I can't believe I waited a YEAR to read this book!
THE HELP intertwines the lives of black women working as domestic help for white, upperclass women in Jackson, Mississippi in the early (think early Civil Rights Era) 1960s. Aibileen is in her 50s and has been working for white families since she was a teenager. She's strong, quietly proud, and tender in the care she takes of the white children she's hired to raise. In stark contrast to Aibileen is Minny, fifteen years younger than the older (and often wiser) Aibileen. Because of her sharp tongue, Minny has a hard time keeping a job, and the needs of her large family and abusive husband demand that she work. But it's not just her mouth that gets Minny in trouble, it's the Terrible.Awful.Thing she did that haunts her footsteps.
Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan grew up on a cotton plantation that her father sweats over from sunup to sundown and that her mother lords over from the family home. The Phelans also had a black maid when Skeeter was growing up, but the mystery of her beloved Constantine's departure from the Phelan household goes unsolved for a large portion of the book. When Skeeter finds out what happened to Constantine, it personally reinforces for her the theme of the book she's been writing with the help of Aibileen and Minny. The book that provides the first honest, open look at what it's like for a black woman to work for a white family in Jackson before Civil Rights took hold. Some of it is as horrible as you'd think it would be. Some of it illustrates how close people can grow to each other, even when society works hard to keep them separate. The book Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny construct is called HELP.
Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. Her family had a black woman who worked for them for many, many years. While the fictitious Minny is famous for her caramel cakes, Demetrie actually baked them for Stocketts. THE HELP is a novel, but the honesty of it is undeniable. The characters are so real, I long to find them somewhere, invite them over for a cup of coffee, and continue getting to know them. I am not ready to let go of them, and I know I will reread this book over and over. It doesn't matter that I know what happens.
I want to hear Aibileen tell Mae Mobley what a wonderful girl she is again. I want to hear Minny tell the story again about the Terrible.Awful.Thing. I want to see Skeeter crouched in the pantry, the phone to her ear, taking a chance to do something that might just change the world she lives in, if it doesn't kill her, Aibileen, and Minny first.
I will read it again. You need to read it. Now.