Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help, is so popular (my recently purchased copy was a seventh edition of the paperback) that another positive review seems like a new high in redundancy. Nevertheless, I offer it to all of you readers who prefer to avoid the rush, or those of you who simply read to the beat of your own drummer, without the assistance of Oprah or NPR, it’s time.
It’s a solid read, which means that the story is not only worth telling, but worthily told. Most of you will already know it’s about life-changing behavior revolving around two very disparate groups of women in the deep South in the early 1960s. Segregation under the Jim Crow laws of the South is a huge story. Stockett has wisely pared her narrative down to three main characters, all women, two Black and one White. Like Gone With The Wind, there is a cast of thousands, or at least as many as resided in Jackson, Mississippi at the time of Stockett’s story, and the three main characters easily represent a fair percentage of that population.
Aibileen and Minny are the women who risk it all to secretly write their life experiences as Black maids (colored help). That dangerous undertaking is secretly spearheaded by Miss Skeeter, a recent college graduate who struggles toward intellectual and personal maturity under the stranglehold of White Southern culture. Stockett’s secondary characters are mostly right-on target. The one emotion that binds all the people in this novel, Black and White, male and female, is fear. The fear of change, fear for one’s life, fear of being alone, of being responsible, of finding work — the list goes on and Stockett is to be congratulated by taking this one small slice of Southern culture and making it an entire meal.
Having read a lot of the reviews of The Help, I’d like to expand a bit about why the book moved me. I never lived in the South, I’m a third generation Californian, but my mother had a Black maid (once a week) as did most of the families in our upper-middle class community. The woman who worked for my mother was usually gone by the time I got home from school, but I have a clear memory that my mother used to clean the house the day before it was “cleaning lady” day. Jim Crow was not a denizen of Mississippi alone, but was alive and thriving throughout the United States. The Help may have been set in Jackson, Mississippi, but Stockett could have chosen any number of other cities and states from which to base her story. If you’ve already read the book and would like to deepen your understanding of the effects of Jim Crow, pick up a copy of The Warmth of Other Suns, The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson’s masterful narrative history.
Kathryn Stockett’s novel is rich in its ability to personalize a disturbing part of our American story; because the story belongs to all of us, it is highly recommended.