Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book Number Five

Just minutes ago, I finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This is a book that's worth staying up until 3:00 a.m. to read. I first heard of The Help on NPR's All Things Considered and knew that I'd have to read it. This is a story about black maids and their white employers in Jackson, Mississippi in the the 1960s. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the stories are intimate, personal, unsettling, uplifting and deeply, deeply moving. The Help captures these complicated relationships beautifully -- the ill treatment, the kindnesses from both sides, and the depth of the connections. This book excels in showing the heirarchies of the Southern social class system, all the lines that are drawn between the many levels of haves and have nots. Only a Southerner could have captured these nuances so accurately.

Told primarily in the voices of maids, Aibeleen and Minnie, the novel is centered around the relationship that develops between Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan and Aibeleen. Skeeter is a new graduate of Ole Miss returning to her family's plantation without the MRS expected of southern college girls in the sixties. She plays bridge and tennis with her old sorority sisters who now run the local Ladies League and grimly follows her mother's advice on how a tall, ungainly, frizzy headed girl can catch a man while she dreams of becoming a writer. When Skeeter lands a job writing the housekeeping advice column for the local paper, she turns to Aibeleen for information, because having had a maid all of her life, she knows nothing about keeping house.

Aibeleen has spent her life raising and loving white women's children and seeing them grow to hold racial prejudices, even though some still show their love for her. She has also recently lost her own son. That loss, including how he was treated because he was a black man, is close to the surface.The relationship is awkward. Aibeleen is scared of the potential consequences of getting too close to her employer's friend, but when Skeeter gets the idea of writing a book about the stories of black maids, the relationship grows in fits and starts. Aibeleen, who is also a writer, feels the need to tell her story, even though she knows if it gets to the wrong people (of whom Skeeter might be one), the consequences for her could be literally deadly. Over time, she brings in more maids to tell their stories, and in the process, she, Skeeter, and most particularly, Minnie, Aibeleen's closest friend change and grow.

Ever since I started reading this book, Verleen, the maid who worked for my family when I was a small girl has been on my mind. I don't even know if I'm spelling her name correctly, but I know I loved her with the intensity and purity only a small child can possess, and I still remember the last day she worked for my family and how sad her leaving made me. I'm remembering Letty, who followed Verleen. She had such great dignity and a smile that just glowed. I'm remembering the few times we would drive them to their homes after work and how they had to ride in the back seat. That is not a comfortable feeling, and it stayed with me all through the whole book. The Help made me think, remember and feel, and it will stay with me for a long, long time.

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Blogger Nelle said...

I simply have to read this book. Your reviews are wonderful. You always bring a personal touch to them which resonsates for me. My great grandmother had a maid, Clarice who came once a week. I'll never forget that one day when she went to take her roast from the freezer and found it gone,she knew it had to be her. Granny was worried about her having enough food to eat and sent her some groceries. I learned a lot about giving from that.

January 24, 2010 2:30 PM  
Blogger david a holgate said...

This resonates with my experience growing up in South Africa. Thanks for adding your own honest thoughts and emotions to your review.

January 24, 2010 3:41 PM  
Blogger marigolds2 said...

Neither Gail nor I could function at all while we were reading this book. It held us spellbound. You did a great job at summarizing a complicated story. I took it as one of my suggestions last night for the newly forming neighborhood book club, but don't know if we'll choose it. It brought back memories for me also, of the years we lived in North Carolina, and Lucy Persons, who came to iron for us once a week. My sister Katy and I spent quite a while remembering those years after we both read the book.

February 10, 2010 11:03 AM  

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