A week or so ago, I mentioned to a coworker that I had just started reading The Help. She responded, “Oh, I saw the movie. It’s your typical white-guilt story.” Now, I freely admit that I haven’t seen the movie (nor do I plan to see it), and I don’t know how much they simplified or cut from the book. What I do know is this: if all this woman got out of the movie adaptation of the book was a message of “white guilt”, she MAJORLY missed the point. Katheryn Stockett wrote an incredibly complex and moving story of relationships and interactions in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. The Help is not trying to guilt or glorify; it’s a portrait of a particular place and time, one that people need to remember as a vital part of the United States’ recent history. Stockett weaves real historical events into the novel — JFK’s assassination, the murder of Medgar Evers, the explosion in the Alabama church that killed four little girls — and gives the characters genuine reactions to these world-altering happenings.
For me, the first indication that The Help was a novel to be respected was the reading addiction that kicked in almost immediately. I found I HAD to read some every day, and usually read quite a bit. Studying for the GRE? Meh. I could read two chapters of my novel instead! I skipped meals for this book. I ignored phone calls. I stayed up late and was grumpy all the next day. It was literally glued to my hands during any and all spare time in my day. Even when I wasn’t reading, I was thinking about The Help, wondering what would happen and envisioning scenes.
The novel’s narration is divided between the three main characters: Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny. Normally I really am not a fan of split narration, but this novel executes it perfectly. The main storyline is augmented by the voices, feelings, and minor events in the lives of these three women, all of which culminate in their interactions with each other. Aibileen and Minny are black, the titular “help” to various white families in Jackson. Skeeter (a nickname bestowed on her as a child by her older brother) is a white woman, an aspiring writer who begins to feel uncomfortable with the racism and ingrained prejudices her peers exhibit. I was impressed with the full-bodied nature of each of these characters; Stockett does a nearly impeccable job of illustrating their hopes and fears through their conversations and daily routines. One of the most interesting features is the nuances in the way the characters view one another, especially as the novel progresses.
Skeeter has long had a respect for the help that her friends do not, though the conflict does not become apparent until the novel’s arch-villain Hilly Holbrook begins pushing to have even private homes have a “white” and a “colored” bathroom so that the whites don’t run the risk of catching any of the “horrible colored diseases” that Hilly assures everyone their maids and other black workers have. Skeeter mentions to Aibileen that she wishes she could change things, though she doesn’t know how.
Eventually, an interconnected series of events leads Skeeter to write a book about the relationships between white women and their black maids. Aibileen is the first to help her in this, giving interviews and allowing Skeeter to copy down her stories, albeit with names changed for her safety. I can’t even begin to map out all of the causes and effects that get this project rolling, or those that take it from a struggling hope to an almost-there dream with ambitions, payoffs, and consequences. I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but even if I did, I wouldn’t want to cheapen the beauty of this novel by giving only bits and pieces. There were a lot of parts that literally made my heart ache, but also parts that had me laughing out loud. The women have everything you’d expect them to: love lives, family drama, gossipy neighbors, bills, jobs that give both soul-crushing defeats as well as heart-warming rewards. All of these little familiar aspects of life take place against the colorful and changeable backdrop of the unrest of the 1960s. Stockett does an excellent job not only of giving the reader believable characters, but also of giving the characters believable lives. You can’t help but root for Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, and fly through the pages to find out what lies in store for them.
I encourage people to absolutely read this novel — it’s one of the rare books that will consume your heart and mind completely from start to finish. It’s not just about race, or even race relations. It’s about the strength that women find in themselves when they let down their guard and see themselves reflected in a woman they never would have guessed they had so much in common with. It’s about principles and pride. It’s about pain and loss, about never letting go of the hope for something more. It’s about family, in all its forms, and the myriad sacrifices that people make for it.
I strongly recommend this book, and hope that people read it. Don’t just see the movie; the movie is NEVER as good as the novel. Or, if you really must see the movie, read the book too. The Help is a novel that absolutely deserves its place on the best-seller list.