One of the books that we can’t keep on the shelves at Novel Conversations, The Help has been a hit with book clubs this year. It was the first of our new books that I listened to on CD and a great choice for that format. Each chapter is narrated by one of the main characters – Aibileen and Minny, two African American maids, and Miss Skeeter, a young white member of the social set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s. The actresses from the movie version read their parts for the CD and bring to life the personalities and dialects of the three women.
An iron-clad social caste system in Jackson separates whites and blacks, yet there is always a sense of connection between white employers and their black household “help.” The relationships may be distant or close, but they are never on an equal basis. What emerges is a sharply focused picture of the old Southern way of life, which is beginning to undergo the pressure of changing times.
The pleasure of reading the book is in getting to know the characters – their daily struggles, their hopes and fears, their loyalties to each other. Skeeter has ambitions to become a writer and journalist, and she investigates the inner life of the black maids, giving the reader an inside view, also. The villains of the piece, the women at the top of the social ladder, are just as finely drawn – oppressive, petty tyrants under a facade of sweetness and gentility. Can it all end well?
The theme of survival is a good one for discussion in this novel. What does it take for African American people to survive, in the most literal and physical sense, in an environment where no one will protect them from beatings and lynchings? In a figurative sense, what does it take for a sense of decency and justice to survive in white people placed in this warped situation?
As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. Children can be taught hatred and prejudice, or they can be taught to respect all human beings. This is the great hope of the book, and it is the lesson that Aibileen tries to teach her “baby girl,” Mae Mobley, the child of her white employers. The author, Kathryn Stockett, herself had a family maid as a child, and she writes about this experience in the afterword.
The Help is an excellent read with much to talk about and think about. It would be an interesting book to pair with Margaret McMullan’s Sources of Light, an outsider’s view of Jackson in the same era.
This What-Are-You-Reading post was written by Nancy Conner, director of grants at Indiana Humanities and coordinator of Novel Conversations.