Ah, the joys of sinking your teeth into a novel you so love, you’re sorry when it comes to an end! The Help by Kathryn Stockett is surely one such –the kind which stays with you for a long time, the kind which makes you want to …blog about it!
Set in the early sixties in Jackson, Mississippi,The Help is primarily about black domestic workers in the employ of white families — told, for a change, from their own perspective, in their own voices. Fifty-four year old Aibileen is grappling with the tragedy of her son’s death in an accident, caused in part by his white bosses’ callousness. Aibileen specializes in raising babies, having realized early on that she liked working with babies the best–because babies, you see, are colour-blind. As they grow up to the age of seven or eight, they invariably imbibe their parents’ prejudices and that is when Aibileen knows it is time for her to look for another white family with a baby.
She is devoted to the little girl she’s currently looking after, who in turn totally adores her, but Aibileen is reconciled to the fact that all her love may not be enough to prevent the girl from turning out like her mother. Her son’s death has ‘planted a bitter seed’ inside her.
Minnie is the best cook in Jackson but is out of job all too often because she is such a spitfire and believes in giving back just as good as she receives. She’s just landed in hot water with the most influential woman in town, which has made it a lot harder for her to find a job. Minnie is one angry woman and supremely distrustful of all white women. Minnie and Aibileen , despite the years between them and despite the differences in temperament, are best friends .
In another, ‘white’ part of the town, Skeeter Phelan is back at her parents’ home after getting herself a degree–only to find her beloved maid gone and nobody willing to tell her why. Her mother is forever breathing down her neck to get married, worrying herself sick that her daughter is set to live out her life as a spinster–and what could be worse than that, really?
Skeeter’s tormented being finds respite in a job with a local newspaper, which brings her in contact with Aibileen and later with Minnie too. Together they undertake a dangerous project–one that promises to rip the whole social scene apart.
These three ordinary women risk all they have got to see the project through to its conclusion. There are consequences, of course, but eventually those consequences turn out to be blessings in disguise for them. The social ostracization becomes an enabling factor for Skeeter to leave the town for an exciting life as a journalist in New York. Being thrown out of job forces Aibileen into only slightly premature retirement, with lots of time to do what she’s always wanted to do–write. And Minnie finds the courage to walk out of her abusive marriage.
I loved the character of Skeeter. At a time when it is thoroughly unfashionable for women to have even an opinion of their own, she holds on to her principles with remarkable tenacity– even at the cost of her blossoming relationship with her ‘prize-catch’ boyfriend, and even though a vicious social backlash is bound to be in the offing. One doesn’t come across too many such women even in fiction.
The last scene, when Aibileen is fired and her BabyGirl is crying her lungs out, begging her not to go, is heart-breaking. A weeping Aibileen departs after asking her to always remember what she has always taught her—” You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” It was a kind of mantra she used to chant to the little girl, in an attempt to rebuild her self-esteem, bruised by a neglectful mother. Brings a lump to the throat.
A wonderful read, surely. I am now looking forward to watching the movie based on the novel sometime soon. It had, I remember, received good reviews. Movies based on novels mostly disappoint if you’ve read the novel first, but I guess you can’t help wanting to watch them!