It’s been a long while since a book has kept me up until 2:30 am, having to turn back the page after realising that I didn’t actually finish the one I was just reading – I was so anxious to find out what would happen on the next one. There is a large, damp spot on my pillow and the house is completely silent.
I feel slightly ill – due to lack of sleep, not in any way a reflection of the book – and have spent the last several chapters telling my heart, be quiet! calm down… but failing rather miserably to convince it.
I cannot even begin to describe how thoroughly brilliant this book is. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960’s, slavery (because let’s be honest, that’s what it was) was the norm, with an essential part of every white household’s kitchen and nursery being a hard-working black woman. It was unquestioned, at least in the white community.
“They say it’s like true love, good help. You only get one in a lifetime.” – Charlotte Phelan, p. 372.
Eugenia Phelan, known affectionately as Skeeter, is home from university and feeling the odd-one-out in a society of women who went to university simply to find husbands and cannot understand her desire for a career. Skeeter begins to befriend a wary Aibileen, the maid of one of her close friends, and slowly they begin a frightening project together – a book which will tell the stories of the women of Jackson – both black and white, but from a perspective that had never been told before. Aibileen’s friend Minnie is even more hesitant, but eventually comes on board after unfairly losing yet another job, and the three work to expose the racism that was an accepted way of life in their city, and in much of the world.
“And Miss Skeeter asking don’t I want to change things, like changing Jackson, Mississippi, gone be like changing a lightbulb.” – Aibileen, p. 24.
Even though I have now read ‘Too little, too late‘ – the closing pages written by Kathryn Stockett about writing ‘The Help‘ I still can’t believe it wasn’t all real. Afterall, I was there with them – in her tiny, hot bedroom with Skeeter as she typed the book that could cost her everything – fearing for my life with Minnie and Celia when the crazed naked man comes up to the Foote’s house – and adoring Mae Mobley while Aibileen shows her the love of a mother.
This book is yet another example of why I never watch the film before reading the book (see Mrs Gwynn’s Laws for Devouring Books). The characters are so real in my mind, I have created my own particular versions of them and I can see them so clearly in the kitchens, lounge rooms, and bedrooms where they met in secret and worked so tirelessly.
Despite criticism ‘The Help‘ has received for “trivialising” the dreadful experiences of the women who worked in domestic roles – underpaid, treated so poorly, abused by the white husbands – I don’t actually think any book could truly express the traumas these women endured, and in my mind, this one has made some ground. It certainly made me more aware of what it may have been like to be forced into such an undeservedly demeaning role. I felt that the frequency of the African-American women being sexually abused was made quite obvious in the novel, and the consequence to the women, and the children that resulted from the abuse, was certainly explored.
One of my most confronting realisations was that the white women in ‘The Help‘ – the ones who exploited, manipulated and oppressed the African-American domestic workers – were probably my age. They were young, just starting families, newly married, and they were still capable of being so cruel and inhuman.
I simply cannot find any criticism to give this book – perhaps only because I was so deeply moved by it that I refuse to look carefully or judge it as harshly as I usually might.
Well written, highly emotive and eye opening. Five stars.