Thursday, August 06, 2015

Review of Kathryn Stockett's "The Help"

The world of The Help was a fascinating one to step into as I read Kathryn Stockett's novel set in Jackson, Mississippi of the early 1960s. My own parents were of a similar age as the toddler Mae Mobley, and my grandparents would be the peers of the young adults like Skeeter, Elizabeth, and Hilly who drive much of the action in this work of historical fiction. The 1960s weren't that long ago, yet the world of Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny, and the others -- a world of wealthy or middle class white families with underpaid, under-appreciated, and mistreated black maids -- feels foreign and strange.  It feels a lot longer ago than just over 50 years ago.

That could be because my grandparents were the children of families hit hard by the Great Depression. They grew up with very little. When it was their turn to raise children, there was no hiring of maids to do the work for them. My parents were raised by their parents (primarily in California and Arizona). Any "help" came from grandparents. My dad's grandparents lived next door for several years, and my mom was sent back to Iowa and Missouri to visit her grandparents during the summer.

So, the thing I appreciated the most about Stockett's novel was the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the civil rights movement. No one in the novel set out to do anything big. This isn't about Martin Luther King, Jr., lawmakers, or the protestors who worked for integration and equal treatment in schools or restaurants.  This book is about the black women who served in white households cooking food, caring for children, and doing all the housework.  Yet, ironically enough, they were treated as too dirty and diseased to use the same restroom or eat in the same room as their employers. They could be lied about, taken advantage of, or unreasonably fired with impunity.

I have read some reviews that criticized the novel for making the employers "too bad" and the maids "too good" as though the book was trying to make all white people the villains and all black people the heroes. I didn't see that at all. Skeeter is one of the three main heroins of the story, and she is white. Also, Minny is the angriest of all the maids and has some pretty ugly stories to share about her previous white employers, yet her worst enemy is her abusive black husband. In the end, she learns to trust several white people who are able to give her a sense of safety and security. There is enough good and bad to go around even if most of the white people portrayed in this story are in the wrong.

Thankfully, a change of heart and a deepening of sympathy and understanding takes place among both poor and rich, white and black, and old and young. Not all the villains are reformed, but the book leaves us with a happier world than the one it first introduced us too.

Anyway, The Help is a book that made me think. It sparked a desire to broaden my knowledge on the topic. American history is complicated, and there is always more to learn!