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The Help

More an engaging novel of manners than searing social commentary, Kathryn Stocket’s The Help gives us an “upstairs, downstairs” view of life in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early sixties. The rumbles of social change, of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, of the Sixties with a capital S, provide a distant backdrop to the daily lives of the maids and of the white households where they work. Three narrators whose paths converge take turns telling the story. Two of these are the African-American maids, Aibileen and Minny, the third is an aspiring writer and social misfit, Skeeter, a young white woman just back from Old Miss, living with her parents and trying to do something with her life rather than get married and start a family. She wants to tell the maid’s view of life in Jackson and persuades Aibileen to help her out. Aibileen brings in Minny and they gradually persuade other maids to join the project. Names are changed, but there is a real sense of the danger they are courting. Rumors of dreadful happenings to African Americans who step out of line and the real beating and blinding of a maid’s son who uses a ‘white’ bathroom add an undercurrent of suspense. We also learn of a maid being framed for stealing silver and sent to prison. This is the darker side of the nonsense perpetrated by Skeeter’s friend Hilly, the leading socialite and President of the Junior League, about the need for separate bathrooms for blacks and whites in every home for ‘sanitary reasons.’ (Hilly, by the way, is the one who sends the maid to prison, a tactic that she tries later on with Aibileen). Of the narrators, Aibileen is my favorite, but Minny’s exploits give a needed levity and excitement to the action. In many ways, this is Skeeter’s story as she learns and grows, becomes friends with the maids, makes a start as a writer and, though suffering ostracism and the scorn of her onetime friends, finally sets her sites beyond Jackson. There is much humor – I loved it that Elizabeth doesn’t recognize herself in the book and when Hilly threatens to tell Skeeter’s Mother on her. There are also bittersweet moments of friendship -especially between Minny and Aibileen- and love for the South and Jackson, even as the cruel social mores of the time are exposed. Aibileen’s farewell to Mae Mobley is particularly poignant. I thought the ending was hastily cobbled together – the Mother was apparently not dying, the maids were probably going to be okay, and the mystery of what happened to Constantine was a bit anticlimactic for me. But these are minor quibbles. A more serious drawback is that the book is too easy on Skeeter and on us. We get to enjoy poking fun at caricatures like Hilly and Elizabeth’s mother, while the maids escape any serious repercussions. As a story within a story, Skeeter gets to have it both ways – exposing and yet not exposing her Mother’s treatment of Constantine, and the maids urge her to run off to New York without a second thought. Still, we all enjoy being let off the hook, and sometimes it does happen. All in all, it’s a good read.

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