Posted by: istop4books | February 11, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

When I was about 11 years old, my parents sent me to the country of my birth, Chile. They would follow in a couple of months, but were staying in the States to tie up loose ends before making the huge move. I was to stay with my aunt Marita, my mom’s older sister, a spinster, who lived with her maid, Juanita and Juanita’s 4 year old daughter, Bernardita. My first impressions were of shock and surpise at the situation.  While I loved having my bed made for me, my meals prepared and served and my bathroom scrubbed, I was old enough to realize that there was something lopsided about the employer/maid relationship.

The year was 1968, Juanita made $30 a month, worked from 6:30 am to 10 pm; had Thursday afternoons off as well as every other Sunday. She cleaned, cooked, shopped and ran errands, she emptied my aunt’s chamber pot (yes, she had one under the bed, to avoid walking down the hall to the bathroom in the middle of the night).   Juanita ate every meal alone in the kitchen, she was made to wait on her daughter who became almost like a little pet to my aunt. Juanita seemingly took it all in stride, suffered in silence and seemed to feel that it was her lot in life, or her “punishment” for having a child out of wedlock; it was just how things were.    In the eyes of an 11 year old girl, freshly arrived from New York, having grown up in the North, it was just an unthinkable situation.  And as I read The Help, so many of those feelings of injustice, immorality, and social inequalities came back. Different continent – same treatment.  Visions of my aunt walking around with keys attached to her belt and locking up the sugar and coffee, counting the silver, making sure she doled out just enough laundry detergent for each day’s laundry, asking to see receipts all came back. The suspicions and accusations, the bowing of the head, the yes ma’am, no ma’am answers.

The Help takes place in Mississippi in the early 1960s. Skeeter has just graduated college with a degree in English and spends her days visiting  her friends, most of whom are married, some with little babies, some not, but all with “help.” She floats from function to function and observes, but can’t pin down what bothers her; she’s too tall for many boyfriends and a bit socially inept, which puts her at a distinct advantage to be observant. When she applies for a job which is way out of her league, an editor offers her some advice and a shot at publication if she can write about what really disturbs her. She tries one topic then another, only to fall flat, until she broaches the topic of what it is really like to be one of “the help” in Mississippi in the early 60’s; not to deal with “the help” but to be “the help” and have to deal with all white, racist households. Although it takes a lot of convincing, she gets Aibileen to not only tell her own story, but to convince her friends who are maids to tell theirs. The book is narrated by Skeeter, Abileen and Minny, Aibileen’s friend, who has no filter and a lot of opinions. They meet secretly as the tensions at the time dictate obscurity and anonymity. They tell of their experiences, both good and bad and as they do, they gradually begin to trust and hope for change.

The book was moving, it seemed real and at no time did I feel it was over the top or contrived. I usually have issue with books which seem to be on everyone’s must read lists – but this is one that I am on board with.


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