Author: Kathryn Stockett
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: February 2009
Lexile Level: 730
The Help tells the story of three women living in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Aibileen and Minny are African-American women who work as maids in white households. Eugenia, nicknamed Skeeter, is a white woman who’s recently graduated from college, and is trying to establish herself as a writer. The book alternates between their points of view–which isn’t something I usually like. But their voices are unique enough that it works.
We open with Aibileen, as she recounts part of her history and her current position taking care of the house and child of Elizabeth Leefolt. She is the primary caretaker of Mae Mobley, Elizabeth’s toddler, as Elizabeth supposedly has postpartum depression and pays no attention to her. I say supposedly, because Mae Mobley is two years old (she turns three over the course of the book) and is talking. I don’t know how long postpartum can last, but the way Elizabeth treats Mae Mobley when she does pay attention to her is nothing short of abusive. Also, her treatment of her son (once he’s born later in the book) and continued mistreatment of Mae Mobley seems to signal that this is not simply the “baby blues.”
Aibileen and Skeeter interact at Elizabeth’s weekly bridge club. Skeeter, having recently returned from college, is uncomfortable with some of the prejudice talk that her friends (specifically Holly Holbrook) throw around. She later asks Aibileen if she wishes things were different. The question rather baffles Aibileen–mostly because she’s used to how the world works. Her thoughts and reply implies that this is an incredibly naive act on Skeeter’s part–which, of course, it is.
Skeeter’s narration introduces her as a rather insecure young woman trying to find her place in the world. She’s mostly insecure about her looks, due to the constant criticisms of her mother. Her character is changed the most in the film adaptation, instead turning her into a Strong Independent Woman. In the novel, Skeeter is much more unsure of herself, and hesitant to speak out. It takes her awhile to find her voice.
Minny’s story is, in some ways, skimpy compared to the other two. It just never feels like there’s as much going on. We pick up with her after she’s been fired from working for Mrs. Walters, Hilly Holbrook’s mother. This is one area in which the film far exceeds the book. The film establishes the relationship between Minny, Mrs. Walters, and Hilly. It makes her firing, and everything that comes later, more meaningful.
Minny is blacklisted as a maid after being fired, as Hilly has spread the rumor that she stole from the household. She finally lands a job with Celia Foote, a white trash woman who has married a very successful man named Johnny. Because of her background, and the fact that Johnny used to date Hilly, Celia is an outcast among the white society women. She hires Minny to teach her to cook, as she wants her husband to think she is capable of keeping the house herself.
Skeeter, having gotten a job writing a cleaning column for the local paper, begins to meet with Aibileen for advice on how to answer the letters. In talking to Aibileen, she learns of her son Treelore, and his desire to be a writer. Aibileen even shares an idea for a book that he had, about showing the point of view of colored people in the South. Skeeter ponders on it for awhile, having been encouraged by an editor in New York to write something that she feels passionately about.
She decides that she wants to write a book from the perspective of “The Help”–the colored women who raise white children only to have them become their bosses. Gaining the trust of the black maids is not easy, however, as they fear repercussions should it be discovered who they are. Aibileen eventually agrees to talk to Skeeter, but no one else wants to.
Eventually, due to crimes against a civil rights leader and the arrest of Hilly Holbrook’s new maid (who stole from her to pay for her boy to go to college), several other maids in the area agree to be interviewed by Skeeter. Minny is one of them–though she is typically outspoken about how dangerous and preposterous the whole idea is.
The book moves between the three women, with Aibileen and Skeeter’s chapters focusing mostly on the interviews and the creation of the book. Meanwhile, Minny is dealing with Celia, who she eventually learns has miscarried several children, and is desperate to have them. Minny also deals with the escalating violence from her husband, and trying to care for her children.
While the plot is always moving forward, I confess there are parts where it felt a bit repetitive. The women are constantly afraid of being discovered, which makes sense and sets the stage. 1960s Mississippi was a dangerous place, and they ought to be afraid. There is a particularly good passage, where Aibileen talks about the difference in how white women will come after them, as opposed to the white men. However, there are places where I found myself wishing we could just get on with it.
Their book is eventually published, and slowly becomes an unexpected success. There are, however consequences, as several people in Jackson begin to suspect the true identities of those talked about in the book. At least one maid is fired, and our protagonists begin to fear that they’ve made a terrible mistake. But their gamble pays off, and they are soon able to start new lives for themselves, in their own way. Skeeter accepts a job in New York, Aibileen retires, and Minny leaves her husband.
To touch briefly on the film adaptation: there are a number of things the movie does very well. We get to see a number of scenes that are only referred to in the book as having had happened, which creates a more dynamic story. I feel Minny’s character and storyline are strengthened–though the violence she faces is downplayed. Some of the relationships are not as well portrayed (such as the one between Skeeter and her mother) but in other ways, we get more interaction (such as Aibileen and Minny working the bridge club together).
I liked the movie, though if anyone suffered from the adaptation, it’s Skeeter. She’s turned into the atypical Strong Independent Woman, and her romantic subplot–which actually takes up a great deal of her part of the book–is reduced to four scenes. She literally only meets her man, dates him, and is left by him. The character has about ten minutes of screen time total. It would have been better if they had cut him completely.
However, the performances made the movie shine. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone are simply amazing. There’s really not a bad cast member in the lot. The movie has received as much acclaim as the book, and it is well deserved.
Despite its size, this book was a quick read. It is incredibly engaging, and the alternating voices keep it moving at a swift pace. I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the film (there’s some added bits that are just priceless) as well as anyone who enjoys realistic fiction.
While there have been some criticisms of the book (mostly that it downplayed too much of the experiences of black women at the time) I feel it is a realistic portrayal. The sad fact is, in mainstream entertainment, you’re not going to be able to show a lot of history’s cruelties without losing a large part of your audience. The book and film may have their flaws, but they are still enjoyable and worth the time.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: Racism, domestic violence