Despite having said I would be taking a long break from reviews, when Shastri Rashmi from Penguin emailed to ask if I’d like to review The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, I jumped at the chance. I find it very difficult to turn down a book, plus the literary snob in me gushes at the thought of being contacted by Penguin, a publishing company that I have always associated with quality – and I spend most of my working week in contact with publishers.
More importantly, though, the book sounded like it would be both interesting and a good read…. and it was both.
The book is set in the Mississippi of the 1960s and deals with the relationship between black maids and their white employers. It’s told through the eyes of three women – two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, and a single white woman, Skeeter. These three women really come to life in the book. The dialogue is so real that after reading a chapter or two, my thoughts (and sometimes my speech) were coming out sounding like a black woman from the deep south (should that be the Deep South?).
There is a book inside the book, as well. Skeeter is writing a book about maids in the South and Aibileen and Minny are helping her. Their stories are part of the book and Aibileen is a talented writer in her own right.
The Help brings a glimpse into two worlds that are very alien to me – the world of the domestic, but particularly the domestic descended from slaves and sometimes treated not much better than their ancestors; and the world of the wealthy white women of the South in the 1960s. They were far from the hippy movement and the beatniks, far from the concept of free love, and pretty far from understanding the civil rights movement. These women leave the running of their households and the raising of their children to their black maids, while insisting that these same maids use a separate toilet and never sit down and eat at the same table as them.
But it’s not all black and white. The most awful white woman in the book, whose racism makes you feel sick, is a fantastic mother. Some of the black women have worked for the same family for 30 or 40 years and feel like part of the family, both to them and their employers. It’s interesting to see that it wasn’t all bad, that good things could happen amongst the bad.
I felt a little discomfort at first, because the author (Kathryn Stockett) is white, and a little part of me thought ‘What does she know about it? Does she have the right to write this?’ And, first of all, of course she does. As much any woman has the right to write from a male point of view and vice versa; as much as any adult has the right to write from a child’s point of view; and so on. But, also she grew up in the South and was partially raised by a black maid herself, so she does know that side of the story. And, in her own words:
"I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.”
I loved this book and was very sad to leave behind Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter when I finished it. If I had more spare time, I would have read it through in a day or two, rather than the couple of weeks it took fitting it in during breastfeeds. If you’re looking for something to read at the moment, then I would heartily recommend The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.
Disclaimers: I got a copy of the book for free. If you click on any of the links and spend money at Amazon while there, I will receive a percentage of the money you spend..