Friday, December 16, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

This book is amazing more because of what it isn't than what it is. It is not a self-righteous, haughty view of the South in the early 1960s. Nor is it a thinly-veiled historical fiction novel that capitalizes on the civil rights movements. It is not an homage or paean to feminism, either.

In its most simple form, it is the story of a young college graduate who returns to her family's cotton farm in Jackson, Mississippi after graduating from Ol' Miss with hopes of becoming a writer. When an editor at Harper & Row answers her rather naive job application with a terse suggestion to find an entry-level writing job, "Skeeter" Phelan finds herself the author of the weekly Mrs. Myrna column.

Knowing nothing whatsoever about housekeeping, however, she begins asking her friend Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen, to help. Grudgingly, the hurried kitchen meetings open the door to a friendship and book project that shakes the very foundation of Jackson society.

What begins as an opportunity to break into writing and publishing for Skeeter soon evolves into a surprising, difficult, joyous and devastating journey of self-discovery for the three women who narrate the story.

But understand that synopsis does not even begin to scratch the surface of what this novel is about.

Kathryn Stockett drew largely on her own memories of being raised by a black maid and, as a result, the complexity of all the relationships in the book are powerfully portrayed. Through the use of a generally deceptive prose, the reader sees white mothers who, maybe, did n't want to have children but do because its simply what they were supposed to do. The complexity and nuance of female friendship--for both black and white women--is seen, as is the difficulty and joy that can be had from a mother-daughter relationship. And of course, there is the deep love that inevitably forms for a maid by the child, and how that bond is fit into the overall family dynamic. It is a book about women, true, but what Stockett ends up writing is a book about humanity.

Stockett's ability to write three so completely distinct voices and women is to be applauded--it is hard to believe that it was all written by one author. The story is told, in turns, by Aibileen, maid to Skeeter's friend Elizabeth, Minnie, the maid who Skeeter's other childhood friends fires early in the book after falsely accusing her of stealing, and Skeeter, a rather naive young, wealthy, and white protaganist.

But none of the women are that simple or easy to pigeonhole. Skeeter is so caught up in her own goals and life that watershed events (such as Kennedy's assassination and sit-ins at the local Woolworth's) happen in the periphiary of her world, even as she is becoming a part of the civil rights movement herself. Vietnam is something that pops up on occasion.

Aibileen's quiet but powerful internal life is a brilliant contrast to the maid her employer family must see.

And Minnie is at once mighty and meek, a lioness and a cowering, scared young women. But somehow, they all become universal.

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