Rating:The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. Amy Einhorn Books (2009), 451 pages.
Set in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi, this novel lays bare the dynamics underlying the lives of white women and the black maids who take care of them and their families. While the white women of the Junior League hold a bake sale to help The Poor Starving Children of Africa, the black maids who work for them struggle to feed their own children and pay the electric bill on their meager salaries. The maids cook the food and change and bathe the white babies, while the white women in the living room make plans to introduce a bill that “requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help.”
These separate but intertwined lives are narrated by two of the black maids and a young white women named Skeeter who has recently returned from college. As Skeeter talks to the maids and begins to see the world she has grown up in more clearly, she decides to put the black women’s stories down in writing. Since she is not supposed to be talking with them, much less visiting their part of town and listening to accounts of life with the white employers, the possibility of discovery has the potential to destroy their lives.
Though at times these characters can become a little too one-dimensional, Stockett’s strength—a plot that makes the book impossible to put down—easily overcomes the few drawbacks. She also has a great ear for dialogue and whether it is Skeeter, the wealthy Junior Leaguers, or one of the maids speaking, it comes across as absolutely authentic.
“You already up, Baby Girl? Why you didn’t holler for me?”
She laugh, dance a little happy jig waiting on me to get her out. I give her a good hug. I reckon she don’t get too many good hugs like this after I go home. Ever so often, I come to work and find her bawling in her crib. Miss Leefolt busy on the sewing machine rolling her eyes like it’s a stray cat stuck in the screen door. See, Miss Leefolt, she dress up nice ever day. Always got her makeup on, got a carport, double-door Frigidaire with the built-in icebox. You see her in the Jitney 14 grocery, you never think she go and leave her baby crying in her crib like that. But the help always knows.
Reviewed by Cindy Blackett