The Help by Kathryn Stockett was this month’s choice for our reading group. Somehow I managed to miss the film version that came out last year. So I was eager to get this chance to read the book and see what all the fuss was about. And I was not disappointed. This is a very good and enjoyable book. Set in Jackson, Mississippi the action covers the early years of the 1960s. As might be expected from this setting and this period the book mainly deals with the racism that was then the norm in that part of the world.
Racism in the deep south is not exactly news anymore and as I was growing up in far away Scotland I was well aware of most of they key moments in the long struggle for civil rights and black emancipation. What makes this tale so intriguing and interesting is that we learn about the racism from the inside as it were. Though the big political events of the period are mentioned, they are just the background to the day to day lives of the main protagonists – the black maids, the Help of the title. The novel revolves around the secret writing of a collection of stories about the experiences – the good and the bad – of black maids in Jackson. The idea for this book is the brainchild of Miss Skeeter, one of the white women from Jackson who wants to become a writer. However getting black maids to talk about their experiences is a difficult enough task in itself and even more difficult when they have to do this with a white women. Skeeter only manages to do this with the help and assistance of two of the maids – Aibileen and Minny, who succeed in convincing other maids to contribute to the book. The novel is narrated by these characters. As two of them, Aibileen and Minny, are black maids we get a first hand insight into the pettiness, the meanness and the vileness of racism as practised in Mississippi. The inclusion of Skeeter as one of the narrators keeps us informed of the white side of the events. A very clever devise.
Not only does Skeeter have a lot of trouble convincing the maids to co-operate, she has to keep everything secret from white society, including her friends. So this is not just a tale of racism but every bit as much a thriller as it is patently clear that people’s lives are at stake. Fear permeates the pages of the novel and one is kept in suspense as to whether the maids’ stories will ever get published. And if they do, what happens then?
This is a very good book which gave me a new insight into the reality behind one of the great scars on America. This was Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, published in 2009. Stockett herself hails from Mississippi, which must give all the more credence to this vivid account of racism.