Love and Hate in Jackson, Mississippi

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (2009)

Get ready, folks, for this was my favorite book in a loooonnnng time.

Thanks to the “borrowing policy” of my recent employers, I was able to bypass the 42-person-wait at the local library to read the book that so many of my friends have urged me to.  “You will love it!” they said. And love it, I did.

The story opens in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, with the voice of Aibileen, black housemaid to the white Leefolt family. Aibileen starts the novel off by summarizing the role of black housemaids: “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.” Her quote also represents the major reason why I devoured this book. Although I guess I don’t have the most valid standpoint when it comes to judging the authenticity of the voice of a southern black woman,  Stockett’s voice of Aibileen seems so natural and dead-on that I spent the first two chapters reading out loud. It’s not muddled with apostrophes or misspellings like some other authors use to represent southern speech, but seems to simply pour out of the character’s mouth onto the page. And then when Stockett switches to a different character’s voice, and then another’s a few chapters later,  they too have perfect pitch. You know when Aibileen’s speaking, you know when Minny’s speaking, and you know when Skeeter’s speaking, not because of the context, but because of their voices.

Skeeter, the only white narrator, is a young, ambitious, college graduate who yearns to be a real writer. When she comes home from school after four years away, she gets her first real taste of the color line, when her life-long maid (the woman who loved and raised her), has disappeared and no one will tell her why. Skeeter then begins to notice the other maids in town, as she sits with her friends Elizabeth and Hilly for bridge club, and Hilly brings up the initiative she’s starting to institute separate bathrooms in the garage for all maids, so as not to spread the diseases that black people inherently carry. As Aibileen (Elizabeth’s maid) silently listens to the discussion and pours them tea, Skeeter can’t help but think how humiliating it must be for her and she starts to wonder what she (and other maids) think about their white employers. And suddenly she has her first idea of something real to write about.

Skeeter’s dangerous undertaking provides the vehicle for Stockett to explore the contradictory relationship between southern black maids the the white families they wait on, filled with both unconditional love and extreme prejudice and hate.

Fascinating and a joy to read, three stars.