The first thing that happened when I started reading The Help was that a teensy bit of voice escaped from my lips. A vocal gasp. The second thing that happened was an ear-to-ear grin, followed closely by a batch of freshly sprung tears. And all this within the first two pages.
The ensuing saga wrapped in the pages of this stunning debut novel by American writer Kathryn Stockett, had me as breathlessly captivated as the latest enthralling TV mini-series – one that’s totally addictive and causes little peeps of glee just before showtime.
I desperately wanted to get back to this book the very moment I reluctantly closed its pages to attend to real life. Such was the intensity of The Help – it made me want to escape to an alternate reality – the world of Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s.
Stockett’s enormously addictive novel follows the journey of two ‘coloured’ maids and one young white writer who is desperate to pen something of substance during an incredibly turbulent time in history, where segregation is the rule, and ignorant housewives are caught up in the falsehood that coloureds are sub-society. The most extreme of these teachings is that coloureds are too diseased to even share a toilet with whites – an absurd notion that is followed most irreverently and deliciously through the book.
Skeeter is a writer, the daughter of a well-to-do cotton farmer, who was raised by a coloured maid named Constantine. When Constantine disappears while Skeeter attends Uni, the young woman is devastated by the loss of her beloved nanny, yet fails to uncover the answers behind her disappearance.
As Skeeter assimilates back into life in Jackson, her uptight, well-to-do friends, all members of the Jackson Junior League, begin to irritate and unearth Skeeter’s deeply repressed hate for segregation, exacerbated by the devastating loss of Constantine. As editor of the League’s newsletter, Skeeter is appalled when her friend Hilly, a scathing, power-hungry, wannabe senator’s wife, starts campaigning to have separate bathrooms for coloureds. Skeeter refuses to publish the initiative in the League newsletter, which starts a series of events that sees her relationship slide drastically – not only with Hilly, but with other members of the League, including the insipid Elizabeth.
Running tightly alongside Skeeter’s drama is the story of Aibileen and Milly, both coloured maids and close friends. Warm, beautiful Earth mother Aibileen raises Elizabeth’s young children and lost her own son in an accident as a young man. Fast-mouthed and fiery Minny is a mother of five, and lives with an abusive husband. She was once maid to Hilly’s mother before Hilly fired her under awful yet devastatingly hilarious circumstances.
Although Hilly blacklists Minny all over town in an attempt to prevent her from working ever again, Minny manages to find work with the complicated Celia, a ditzy babe from Hilly’s past. It’s then that the lies of the white housewives become unhinged, and the connection between Skeeter and the two maids becomes intricately intertwined. So much so, none of them could ever foresee how their worlds will be fused together – a union so powerful, it begins to shift and change the lives of the people of Jackson, and sends the reader headlong into one of the key moments of unrest and change during the Civil Rights movement.
I defy you to read The Help and not laugh, gasp, cheer and weep. The tale of these three women is a joy. Engagingly written, with thoughtfully placed accents and vernacular, the tone and pace of the storyline is priceless – a style that manages to pack an even greater and more meaningful punch than if the author had written from a third person perspective.
While The Help’s tightly woven plot and sub-characters are addictive, well-placed and totally believable, it’s the three main characters that will have you breathless. Told in the first person present tense by each of the three voices – Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter – the reader gains unique and detailed perspective into not only the lives but the very thought processes of these three women.
Stockett intersperses the voices of these main characters throughout the book, a real skill considering the possibility for continuity errors or repetition. Instead, the author manages to effectively take us on a journey that is seamless, thoroughly engaging and at times heart-stopping.
Sometimes outrageously funny, The Help never stoops to the far-fetched nor ridiculous – a danger that would very quickly haul this tale out of a vital time in real-life history, where violence and hatred was a given, where truth was a rarity and reality was stretched and manipulated to fit the ugly form of ignorance.
Although this brilliant debut novel by no means hides away the horrors of this terrible time in US history, it also covers the joys and the love – intimately and warmly. The love of a coloured maid for a white baby. The sheer compassion from a white woman for a beaten family member of her coloured maid. The friendship and the connection between people from different worlds – “We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”
Writing this book must have been an emotional journey for the author, who grew up in Jackson and whose family had its own black maid. Interestingly, Stockett writes a postscript examining her need to write this tale, and expressing her fears over its content. This postscript, although fascinating to read, seemed unnecessary to me. Stockett obviously battled with a deeply embedded closeness to these characters and to the issues surrounding the Civil Rights movement, and although I appreciated the need to clarify her position, I would have preferred to idolise her work without knowing what when who how and why. To me, this stunning work needs no explanation. The only explanation needed is why it was only 444 pages long.
Unpredictable, perfectly paced, thoughtfully constructed and stunningly voiced, Stockett is a true master of storytelling. This novel has been superbly written, masterfully edited and if the film rights haven’t already been sold, I’ll eat me some of that pie. What pie? You’ll have to read The Help to find out.
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