Fresh out of college, Skeeter Phelan, the only white narrator of the story, is a disappointment to her mother because she comes home from Ole Miss with a diploma, rather than a husband-to-be. Living with her parents, Skeeter finds herself stuck in the expectations of others. The only person she could really share her feelings with, the family maid Constantine, has mysteriously disappeared before Skeeter's return, and no one will tell her why she left. While her mother constantly belittles Skeeter's height, her hair, and everything about her appearance, Constantine had been the one to instill self-esteem in her with the mantra she taught Skeeter at a young age: "Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?"
Skeeter aspires to be a journalist and naively applies for a job at New York publishing firm. After a few months, she receives a reply from an editor at Harper's who doesn't offer her a job, but gives her some advice to build up her resume. She encourages Skeeter to find any kind of writing job as a starting point, and Skeeter does--as a replacement at the local newspaper for Miss Myrna, writing a weekly housecleaning advice column. Knowing nothing about cleaning, Skeeter approaches her friend Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen, for help and eventually begins to talk to Aibileen about much more than cleaning. A comment by Aibileen inspires her with an idea for a book--writing about what it is like for a black woman to work in a white home. "That's when the idea comes to me. No. I couldn't. That would be . . . crossing the line." But Skeeter does "cross the line," and in the process her eyes are opened to the injustices around her.
Though Skeeter has been raised with traditional values and is good friends with Elizabeth and the domineering Junior League President, Hilly Holbrook, she feels slightly uncomfortable with some of Hilly's ideas. In particular, she evades Hilly's constant request to publish an article in their League newsletter about Hilly's plan, "The Home Help Sanitation Initiative," a euphemism for building separate bathrooms for the black domestics in every white home.
Through the course of the book, Skeeter goes from a silent acceptance of the behavior around her to sneaking into the black neighborhood each night to visit Aibileen and record her story. As she meets more of the black maids in the town and records their stories with Aibileen's help, a new perspective of her world is opened up to her.
There are many sad and infuriating stories from the maids who risk telling their stories to Skeeter. One is imprisoned for stealing a worthless ring from her employer. Another's grandson is beaten and blinded for accidentally using the white bathroom.
Sign in restaurant window in Ohio (image from Wikipedia)
Not all the stories Skeeter records are tragic, however.
"Faye Belle, palsied and gray-skinned, cannot remember her own age. Her stories unfold like soft linen. She remembers hiding in a steamer trunk with a little white girl while Yankee soldiers stomped through the house. Twenty years ago, she held that same white girl, by then an old woman, in her arms while she died. Each proclaimed their love as best friends. Swore that death could not change this. That color meant nothing. The white woman's grandson still pays Faye Belle's rent. When she's feeling strong, Faye Belle sometimes goes over and cleans up his kitchen."
Skeeter is also surprised to learn that Louvenia, the maid whose grandson was permanently disabled, received help from her employer, who rushed Louvenia to the "colored hospital" and stayed by her side, brought casseroles to her every day, and gave her paid time off to care for her grandson.
Not until Skeeter finishes the book does she realize the true significance of what she has recorded. "Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize, 'We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought.' "
March on Washington, 1963 (image from Wikipedia)
The Help is a compelling novel of ordinary characters who must deal with surviving in this segregated society and whose lives have not yet been touched by the growing Civil Rights movement. Those of you who have read my other book reviews know that I enjoy mysteries, but this book was every bit as much of a page-turner as any mystery. I was drawn into the stories of Aibileen, Skeeter, and even the sassy Minny immediately and found myself cheering them on even as I hoped that the obnoxious Hilly would one day get her comeuppance. There is a reason this book has found its way to the best-seller list and why some have called it an "instant classic." Future classic or not, The Help definitely deserves a place on your "must read" list this year.
The Book Review Club meets the first Wednesday of every month and is hosted by Barrie Summy. Check out other reading recommendations here; why not join us next month?