The Help – Kathryn Stockett

07 Sep

Another fabulous book that I put off reading for far too long! Thank you Aparna, for lending me your copy! I need to get my own…this one’s another keeper 🙂

You just know things are going to get interesting when maids start telling on their employers 😉 and Stockett doesn’t disappoint! She tells an intriguing tale, set in a town in the deep south of the United States, about its white employers and their black maids. The concept is interesting and one of the reviews mentioned that it was like reading the other side of Gone with the Wind – Mammy’s Story as it were! That sort of sums it up and yet this book is so much more than just maids talking about their employers. It is about friendship & loyalty, about integrity & courage, about love and sacrifice, about hope & survival and above all, respect.

I like that Stockett avoids sensationalism. Writing about racial relations is never easy – it is so easy to go overboard, be judgmental, get carried away by the heated emotions that so often come up in this sort of subject, but Stockett manages to avoid controversy by keeping the narrative simple & telling the stories of the women lucidly, with minimum fuss in their own quietly dignified voices. She manages to avoid condescension too and is never demeaning in tone. Even in the story, Aibileen is often heard telling Minny, “This isn’t about civil rights. It’s just about telling our stories.”, especially when Minny is all worked up about what can happen to them if they were to be found out. For a white lady speaking in a black woman’s voice as it were, I thought she did a remarkable job! No where do the conversations or situations seem contrived. She cleverly interfaces fiction with real events, (the Medgar Evers murder, Dr. King’s March), and the mood of the times, and in doing so keeps it real and lends authenticity. She manages to imbue both the women & their stories with the respect they deserve and ultimately I think that’s what makes this book so compelling for me.

This is no story-telling for the sake of creating sensation or scandal, rather an outlet for women who have none, who feel trapped in lives of servitude and are desperate to find a way to make their lives & their children’s lives better. She mentions her reasons for writing the book at the end – she grew up in household much like Skeeter’s (I think Skeeter has a lot of Stockett in her) from what I gather and she wondered how her maid would have answered the question, “What does it feel like to be black in Mississippi, working for a white family?” The book she explains is a result of what she has imagined Demetrie’s answer might be. Interesting perspective.

The story itself is narrated in 3 voices – Skeeter (white, employer), Aibileen & Minny (black, maids). Stockett uses each woman’s unique voice to great effect in unfolding the events over the course of a year in their lives. The central plot revolves around the three principal characters coming together to write a book about black maids and their experiences while working for white households in Jackson, Mississippi. How the women collude against humungous odds, in the face of family pressures and societal ostracism forms a major part of the narrative. Through this project, three very different yet essentially similar women begin a journey toward their own emancipation and friendship. Although they come from opposite sides as it were, they find common ground and are able to work through their differences toward a common cause.

I enjoyed this book on so many levels 🙂 I love reading about strong women, women who take risks and persevere and this book has those in plenty. Skeeter, her Mom, Aibileen, Minny and all the other maids, Celia Foote (grew to like her although she irritated me for a good part of the book!), Lou Anne, Louvenia and even Hilly, that epitome of mean-spiritedness & small-mindedness, are all in their own way, women of substance and courage. I identified most closely with Minny, coz she’s so like me – hot-headed, stubborn with a heart of gold 😉 Each woman is brave in a different way and together they make for a formidable team even though it takes them a while to understand their own strength. I must confess even though I’m as far removed from slavery and Mississippi as anyone who lives in India and was born at the end of the sixties is, and so have no context of my own, I know about the struggles of women trying to live their lives with dignity in the face of horrendous odds – that struggle isn’t exclusive to slavery, it’s universal. I see it every day in the face of my maid, Fatima, a widow in her fifties who slaves away in several households, cleaning up our messes in the hopes that this will somehow sweep away the mess that is her own life, in which she still has to support her grown children coz they refuse to help themselves. It’s sad and heartbreaking and something I as an employer prefer to ignore on a daily basis, coz it makes me uncomfortable to think about it. So I push it to the bottom of my conscience and focus instead on the fact that I’m helping her by giving her employment and paying her good wages and being in general a good employer. Is that enough? I don’t know.

And this book brought back memories of Savita, our first live-in maid. We practically grew up together. She was from our native village and came to stay with us when I was in school, and ideally she should have been too. She became part of the family, eventually moving away when she got married. My parents helped out in her marriage, because it was only right. She still comes by sometimes to visit Mom with her children. Now I wonder what she might have thought of us all those years she stayed. It wasn’t a racial difference but a divide of caste and class between us and when I think back now, I realize that her own plate and glass were kept separate,  although we shared bathrooms. I agree with Stockett in that those that live in close proximity, seldom think of such things, or should I say employers don’t. So even though she was ‘like’ family, there was always a fine line that I’m sure she knew not to cross. Being ‘like’ is just not the same as actually ‘being’, the differences are often subtle yet well defined. I’m sure Savita must have had her own opinions about working for us too, if anyone had bothered to ask her. I’m sure she would have had opinions about me, we were both girls of similar age, but while I studied and went off to Medical College, she stayed home and did housework. That must have rankled! I wonder now…what would she have had to say?

That’s what a great book does – it stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page and makes you think about things you’d rather avoid. It holds up a mirror to the self and lets you reflect on whatever it is you see. This was one such for me 🙂

Read it!

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Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Non-Booker Reviews


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