Sunday, May 30, 2010

Review: The Help

Author: Kathleen Stockett
Format: audio 18 hr, 464 pages equivalent
Characters: "Skeeter" Phelan, Minnie, Aibileen, Hilly Holbrook
Subject: racial discrimination, social mores, civil rights movement
Setting: Jackson Mississippi
Genre: fiction
Source: public library audio download
Challenge: Support your public library; Audio books

A good book can be defined as one that is easy to read with a great ending.  A great book is one that is so engrossing, with characters so real that the reader is left with an empty feeling when the book ends.  I just didn't want it to be over. I want more.  I want these people to tell me what happens next.

Often I run like crazy in the opposite direction when I see a book getting rave reviews from everybody.  I put off reading this one, in spite of everyone telling me I HAD TO READ this. This time, everybody was right. I have now joined the ranks of all those who are convinced this is one of the best books written in the past year. 

Set in the Mississippi of the mid 1960's as the civil rights movement was happening, the book tells the story of black women who served as "the help" in white households in Jackson MS.  A recent college graduate, white girl Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan wants to be a journalist, but the only job she can find is writing the housekeeping advice column in the local paper.  Raised in a household with "help", she has no idea how to answer the questions, and turns to one of her friend's maids, Aibileen, to get the answers.  In the meantime, she serves as the newsletter editor for the local Junior League, where her membership brings her into contact with the prevalent and open racial and class prejudice of the era.

Her relationship with Aibileen, coupled with her rising frustration with the stereotyped role her parents and friends expect of her, leads her to seek an outlet in writing.  She is encouraged by a New York editor, who suggests that she write stories of the maids and their families and submit it as a book. In a world where black women working in white houses are forced to use separate bathrooms (many of them outside), where they are taught from early girlhood to never question or talk back to whites, where they never sit with whites, keep their dishes separately, work long hours at less than minimum wage with no Social Security or other benefits, and count them selves lucky to get a $10 bonus or hand-me-down dress at Christmas, and where a white woman's word against them (whether true or not) can land them in jail, getting these maids to share their stories with her is the hardest part of Skeeter's endeavor.

The story is told by Aibileen, by her friend Minnie, and by Skeeter.  Each has her own secrets, her own hopes, her own fears.  They all live and work in the same circle of people, and know many of each other's secrets.  Skeeter must deal with an "on again, off again" relationship with the State Senator's son, a mother who is very ill but very intent on her daughter's following all the prescribed social norms, a best friend who turns out to be a truly bigoted tyrant, and a deadline for her book that looks to be impossible.

Aibileen must encourage all the other maids, keep her own secrets and several from other maids, and still meet with Skeeter to help her record and capture the stories.  Minnie, the third point of view, is a wonderfully vibrant character with a true 'smart-ass' sense of humor, a tendency to mouth off and get herself fired, and, who, for most of the book, works for a white woman Celia who is despised as "poh white trash" by all the other Junior Leaguers.  Minnie is torn between staying out of Celia's business and mentoring her in proper white woman behavior.  The relationship that develops between these two is so well-written that you find yourself rooting for both of them.

The tension builds as Skeeter writes the stories, changing the names and the town, and assures them that it will be published anonymously, while the maids worry what will happen if their white families ever realize who they really are, and what is being said about them publicly.

The book is incredibly well written, and the audio reading is rich with dialect and accents.  It has truly believable characters, a range of issues related to the overall racial and class dynamic, and a plot that builds one step at a time holding the reader's attention from the beginning.  It flows so well that it is impossible to put it down.  One of my few five star reads this year.


  1. Again, I must agree with you. I think this is a classic book that will stand the test of time. Certainly one of my favorites in a long, long time.
    Glad you finally read it.

  2. I have yet to read a "meh" review of this book. I loved it too and can't wait for Stockett to come up with something new. Glad you enjoyed it so much. Your review is so eloquent.

  3. Tina, I'm with you. I usually avoid these kinds of over-hyped books but I started reading The Help yesterday. It's amazing. I'm only 10 percent into it but I am thinking this will become an American "classic."


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