Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

One of our recent additions to the collection is this very impressive debut novel by Atlanta resident Kathryn Stockett. Set in the Jim Crow-era Mississippi of 1962, The Help is a moving and vivid portrait of life in a segregated society and the complex relationships between African-American domestic servants and their white employers. It's a time when black women are trusted with the care and upbringing of their white employers' children, but aren't allowed to use their toilets. When both state law and societal rules prevent the two classes from mixing, the result is fear, suspicion, anger, resentment, prejudice and ignorance. Fortunately, a few very brave women find a way to navigate this social gulf, uniting on a project that will give a voice to the oppressed, challenge preconceptions and finally shed some light on both sides.

The novel manages to make its point without being preachy, and is also an enjoyable and absorbing story. These two accomplishments are largely due to Stockett’s skill in creating well-rounded, believable characters, especially those of her three narrators. Chapters alternate among Aibileen, a black maid raising her seventeenth white child while mourning the loss of her own son through the negligence of his white employers; Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, whose inability to contain her own anger and keep her opinions to herself has cost her job after job; and Skeeter, a 22-year-old white girl, fresh out of college with a burning desire to write and the secret heart of a social reformer. (One character, a bigoted Junior League matron with political aspirations, does verge on caricature, but for the most part Stockett‘s characters are vivid, complicated and “messy”—in other words, just like real people).

When a mentor suggests that Skeeter write about something that matters, she conceives the idea of interviewing the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi and finding out what their lives are really like. Most of the maids are reluctant to participate, understandably fearing retribution if they spoke out about their employers, but Skeeter finds in Aibileen and Minny two subjects who, while still cautious and fearful of discovery, are more than ready to speak their minds. Others eventually follow. The tales they tell, and what happens after they have their say, may surprise you.

The Help is sometimes moving, frequently provocative and sometimes hilarious. It’s a good read with a message behind it, offering both a snapshot of a troubling period of history and a window into the lives of a group of women whose story has rarely been told.

You can find this book temporarily located at the service desk on the second floor of the library.

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