The Help by Kathryn Stockett is by far the greatest book I read last year. In fact, I was so touched by it I decided to make it my dissertation’s topic, alongside Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, another favourite of mine. It is an unforgettable story told by three narrators, two of them with nearly identical socio-economic backgrounds, while the third one is quite a different woman faith brings together with the other two. Set in the 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi, The Help revolves around black domestic workers and their day-to-day life, specifically the oppression they were subjected to as maids for white employers. Aibileen Clark, Minny Jackson and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan are the three alternating voices the author manages to educate, to a certain degree, their readers in regard to systematic racism, oppression and discrimination due to two reasons: first for their skin tone, secondly for being women.
Despite seeing the trailer for the movie quite some time ago, I didn’t read the book until last year, when, in October, my coordinating teacher suggested reading it as it is a literary masterpiece that would perhaps become the novel I draw comparisons with in my dissertation. I was quite unsure about how a non-black author could write about black culture and I was even suspicious after noticing how many people consider it harmful to their communities. However, and I am in no position to decide but only to express my opinion, I found the novel, based on my previous knowledges about black history, quite accurate. Depicting the oppression black domestic workers were subjects to, it revolves around Aibileen Clark, a submissive mammy caring for the children of her white employer who finds herself in a profoundly unjust situation, working for long hours and having little to no time for her personal life. Sharing quite of few commonalities with Aibileen is, amongst other characters, Minny, the best cook but a failed mammy considered unattractive, unfeminine and who has the audacity to reject the image of the submissive maid. Although seemingly different in personalities, the two are best friends – and have been for a long time – and are united by their circumstances. Moreover, community and female solidarity is the only things domestic workers find solace and reassurance in. Skeeter, on the other hand, is the representative of the privileged white woman growing a conscience and refusing to accept the unfairness of the social structure and the political system. Together with Minny and Aibileen, as well as other members of their community, she attempts to expose the cruelties her friends are going through. Thus, Stockett manages to construct characters placed in a historical context in such a manner that they are vivid, breathing characters the reader can easily laugh with and cry for. Moreover, the background of each character is indicative of the historical context: Aibileen’s husband is estranged as a result of her being a domestic worker and having little to no time for him, Minny’s husband is abusive and represents the typical, oppressed black man, a victim of the system, and Skeeter’s coming from a family that fails to support her and see things from her perspective. Besides the well-rounded characters I found the book meaningful for its approach to the subject of racial discrimination as it brings multiple aspects together: whites-only bathrooms, hate crimes, white saviourism, female solidary, empowerment, the new ideology of the black working class, lack of independence in domestic services and gender identity.
The Help is a moving novel everyone should read as part of their education (along with works of non-fiction). The characters are carefully cast and built in such a manner that their humanity and vulnerability shine through moments of suffering and moments sprinkled with the typical sense of humour black domestic workers used perhaps as means to cope with their circumstances. What’s even more outstanding to me is how Stockett juggles around with multiple perspectives and still succeeds at keeping the reader’s attention on what truly matters: the theme. Despair, hope, happiness and anger are just a couple of feelings I’ve been struck with while reading the novel. Please do read it, give it a try at least as it is a painful reminder of the injustices and cruelties black domestic workers were subjected to, but also an indicative of the progress society has made and the many other promises we are still yet to fulfill.
Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Penguin Books