Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Putnam, 2009, 464 pp.
Kathryn Stockett's first novel, The Help, is an engaging tale of three women, two black and one white, set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, at the beginning of the civil rights movement. The book is told in the alternating voices of the women. It begins with the voice of Aibileen, a wise black maid who has spent most of her life cooking and cleaning and is raising her seventeenth white child. She knows her place, knows when to hold her tongue, but also understands how superficial the white ladies she works for can be. Her voice is depicted using a realistic Black Southern voice.
Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is the second voice in the book. Minny is also a black maid, but one who has trouble holding her tongue. Minny is a great cook, but is sassy and has been fired from numerous jobs for talking back to her boss. She has found a position, with Aibileen's help, working for someone new in town who isn't aware of her reputation.
Skeeter Phelen, the third voice, has recently graduated from Old Miss and has returned to Jackson and her parents' home. Her mother wants her to find a nice, rich, Southern man and get married, like all of Skeeter's childhood friends in the area. Skeeter's dream is to be a writer. She has been advised to hone her skills by writing about something that disturbs her.
While visiting her friends and their black maids ("the help"), Skeeter comes up with a plan to interview "the help" and write a book about their experiences working for white families. She asks Aibileen to help her by telling her story and finding other black maids who will do the same. The idea is to write the book without using real names, because jobs, and even lives, would be in danger otherwise. At first Aibileen will not even consider Skeeter's idea, but when she gives it some thought, she realizes that she is tired of a world where black women are trusted to raise white children, but have to use separate toilets, are paid poorly, and aren't trusted to polish the family silver. She is ready for change, and knows that what she is doing feels freeing, but is also very risky.
Aibileen manages to convince her friend Minny to join in the project, and tell her story, too. As they realize how liberating it feels to tell of their experiences, they build up steam and collect narratives from a number of other black maids. The three women are deeply affected by the stories they hear. By sharing their stories, the women realize that they have all grown closer to each other.
Stockett writes with feeling and compassion. The Help is a well-written novel, with realistic characters that will tear at your heart and then make you chuckle. The book was published in February 2009 in hardcover, with the paperback edition due this past spring. However, the hardcover has been so popular that publication of the paperback edition has been delayed until early 2011.