The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I didn’t expect to read this book so soon.  For starters, the request list here at the library is a mile long.  Thank goodness I know reading friends who have other sources.   I read the first 10-15 pages of The Help about three months ago, then picked it up again about two weeks ago when a friend lent me his copy.

The Help is about the social situation in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement was picking up steam.  Specifically, the book concerns the relationships between black maids and their white employers, and the tightly controlled segregated system that defined these relationships.   The story is told through the alternating voices of Aibeleen and Minny, two friends who work as maids, and Skeeter, a young white college graduate who is decidedly at odds with the social expectations of the times.   This mix makes for a lively read – rock-steady Aibeleen, who has raised umpteen white children, and grinned and bore her way through a lifetime of humiliation; fiery Minny, who can out-cook anyone in town but speaks her mind, sometimes with disastrous results; and Skeeter, whose desire for a career far outweighs her naiveté. 

The book is at times sad to read, as when the author incorporates the murder of Medgar Evers into the narrative or mentions the brutalization of a friend’s grandson for using the “wrong” restroom.  On the flip side, there are places that are laugh-out funny.  Minny’s accounts of her most recent employment are particularly memorable, when she works a clandestine job at a large and strange house out in the country, with a reclusive employer who is determined to keep Minny’s employment a secret from her husband.  The juxtaposition of humor and tragedy reminded me of certain places in The Color Purple, another book about the pre-Civil Rights era South that had plenty of sly jokes or turns of phrase.  Reading The Help had me laughing uncontrollably, oh, in restaurants or wherever I brought it; I would also read a heartfelt passage and start tearing up.  Definitely a winner of a book – highly-needed at a time when I haven’t wanted to read much lately.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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