Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Help - by Kathryn Stockett

In Jackson, Mississippi, during the height of the civil rights movement, three women tell their stories in this bestselling novel. Aibileen and Minny, black women working as domestics for white families; and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan a young white woman who returns from college to find that Constantine, the housekeeper who helped raise her, has "gone to Chicago" without so much as a good-bye. Skeeter's mother is evasive when Skeeter demands to know why Constantine left and how she can reach her. Unable to picture the life her two best friends lead of marriage, family, and bridge, and complaining about "the help" Skeeter sets out to make a difference in the world by writing a book detailing the lives of the black women who work for white families in Jackson. Assisted by Aibileen and Minny she gathers stories from 13 different women, telling the good and the bad (including the "Terrible, Awful" thing that got Minny fired from her last job - something which turned out to be even worse than I'd imagined). The stories are published under pseudonyms and set in a ficticious town called "Niceville".

Most of the discussion about libraries in this work surrounds segregation, and the fact that Skeeter checks out books from the "white" library (a place she describes as smelling "like grade school - boredom, paste, Lysoled vomit") for Aibileen because Aibileen has to wait so long to get them from the "colored" library. But Skeeter also finds something at the white library she does not expect: a booklet entitled "A Compilation of Jim Crow Laws of the South" detailing various state segregation laws. A comment she writes about this work is discovered by her friend Hilly, and marks the beginning of the end of their friendship.
The Ole Miss library is where Skeeter finds out about a job at Harper & Row publishers, and although is not nearly qualified enough, applies anyway. This inquiry, and its follow-up is what starts her on her way to writing her book.

There was also a bit about banned books, one of my passions, in this work. Skeeter receives a copy of The Catcher in the Rye through the mail. She "always order[s] the banned books from a black market dealer in California, figuring if the State of  Mississippi banned them, they must be good." The pseudonym she gives to her own family in the book she writes is "the Millers...after Henry Miller, [her] favorite banned author."

Three copies of Skeeter's completed work are ordered for the Jackson, Mississippi "white" library, but a long waiting list soon grows, and the bookstores sell out, when rumors begin about a new, inflammatory book, that might just be about Jackson!

1 comment:

  1. This book taught me much. I learned about the atmosphere and white ignorance of the South during the Civil Rights Movement. The eloquent writing allowed me to comprehend how it felt to be a black maid during this time frame. I was reminded of many truths...to not judge people by the color of their skin, and to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences are. I really loved this enthralling, deeply-moving book and I highly recommend it!
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