Last night I finished my third book of the summer, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It took me over a month to read, partially because I got a summer job during that time, and partially because it’s 522 pages. Still, I really enjoyed the book and think it has a lot of value, especially at this time in our nation’s history.
The novel follows the lives of three women from Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s: Aibileen Clark, a black maid who loves the white children she cares for deeply; Minny Jackson, a feisty black maid who works for a flighty, rich, white woman; and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a twenty-four-year-old white woman trying to find success in writing despite living with her stubborn, ailing mother and farmer father.
Stockett writes each of her chapters in one of these women’s point of view (as denoted on the top of the first page of the chapter), which was an incredibly smart choice for her character development. At first, it seems that the women have little to do with each other; Aibileen is Minny’s best friend, and Skeeter is a friend of the woman for whom Aibileen works, but there is little else that they have in common. Until Skeeter has an idea.
As Skeeter finds herself becoming more and more frustrated by her friends’ treatment of their black “help,” Skeeter realizes that she would like to investigate the lives of the maids in Jackson as a project to get published by a New York City editor. The story follows the conception of the novel to its completion, as well as its (SPOILER!) publication. Not to mention the aftermath in Jackson; despite the book being completely anonymous, many white women suspect that Jackson is the subject of the book, Help.
Despite this being Stockett’s debut novel, she really knocked it out of the park. Not only is her character development spot-on, but her pacing is perfect for the setting. Until the very end, it’s not much of a page-turner; each chapter is rounded off so that you can put it down for the night and actually get some sleep. The leisurely pace perfectly suits the no-rush South. And the happy yet realistic ending offers perfect closure.
I found myself strongly identifying with Skeeter Phelan (and not just because I’m white). Toward the beginning of the novel, Skeeter has returned from college to a place that she doesn’t quite fit into anymore, and she’s trying to make a name for herself in writing. She doesn’t enjoy drinking like the rest of her friends do, and she has very little luck with the men in her town. For the most part, she’s a smart yet gawky young woman who’s just trying to figure out a place in her now changing world.
But she learns toward the beginning that she can choose what she believes. She can choose to believe that a black person and a white person are equal. Even though no one else around her believes it, she has the power to believe it.
Stockett does mention in her acknowledgements that as a white woman, it is impossible for her to put herself completely into a Southern black woman’s shoes, and she knew that it was a risk to speak in not one, but two, of their points of view. She pointed out that it was probably a lot worse at that time in Jackson than what she wrote in her book, but she tried her best to stay true to her story and to that time in history.
What I think is most important about The Help is that it’s still relevant today. Especially today. Racism still exists in America. And honestly, it’s not very different from the time of The Help. Black people are still being killed just because they’re black, black women are still not being given opportunities to become successful, and there is still a great deal of racism embedded in the social, political, and economic structures of our country. There is still much to be changed.
And The Help might be idealistic, but it shows how important awareness and empathy are in talking about and solving the problems of systemic racism. And I know I’m a white person, and I’m not saying anything new, but I do think the book is a good read especially at this time when social media and online video are being used as valuable tools to prove and discuss the racism in our modern society. It’s a book that makes you think about who you are, how you view your world, and what you can do to change that world for the better.
Have you read The Help? What did you think of it? What do you think are its most important messages? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!!