The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Modern-day version of slavery ... still pervasive today. 

Synopsis of The Help by Kathryn Stockett: Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted not to steal the silver... There's Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son's tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from College, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they'd be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell...

My two cents

The book in one sentence: Three women tell their life stories in a racially segregated world.

Hype hype hype. Then a movie. I live under a rock and I didn't want to buy into the hype. I didn't have any idea what it was about until I saw the movie trailer. And then I decided to take up an offer to borrow this off a friend. This is one of those books where the hype is well-deserved.
Today we pride ourselves on being "enlightened" -- where racism is a thing of the past, and speaking one's mind is recognized as a human right. But this story took place in the not-so-distant past and there still are vestiges of our being "unenlightened" today.  

While The Help is the life stories of three women, it is moreso a story of an era. Jackson, Missisippi, 1960s: where racial segregation is the norm, and the white majority are served by the black minority. But therein lies a paradox - generations of white children being raised by a hardworking black women, setting a rather unusual power play within the community.

I loved

While I loved the three main characters -- Abileen, Minny and Skeeter -- I also loved the side stories. The clique of white women, led by Hilly Holbrook, upholding the social norms at whatever cost (including separate bathrooms). The clique of black women, economically dependent on working for the white clique and being privy to all their household secrets. Then there were the oddballs: Skeeter who technically belonged to the white clique but whose naive desire to tell the truth challenged these boundaries; and Celia Foote, the outsider, while trying to break into the white clique, surprised and challenged Minny's beliefs on how white women should act. Then there are those who change their minds and have the capacity to surprise you!

It is amazing how certain people will touch and influence your life, cutting across colour, belief, and status. Skeeter was practically raised by their black maid Constantine. I was touched by Abileen's love for her ward Mae Mobley, trying to inculcate positive values into a child who is raised in an unloving environment (her mantra "You is kind, you is smart, you is important" will stay with me). The author openly admitted in the back of the book that she wrote The Help for Demetrie, their own family's help.

The Help has its funny moments in an otherwise seriously themed book.

I didn't like

While some characters seem like stereotypes or caricatures, there are also some surprising character twists challenge stereotypes. The fact that this was written by a white woman is a point of controversy; I think she did a wonderful job.

Book-to-movie: Awesome movie, very true to the book. The acting was superb.

Personal notes: While the story is a commentary on racism, I connected on a very personal level. I have personally seen the powerplay of having house help in modern-day Philippines (my home country). I have my own "Constantine," a lovely woman who I practically grew up with since grade school; she became eventually my godmother at my wedding.

In the Philippines, it is not uncommon to have live-in house help. Coming by a variety of names  kasambahay (literally someone who live with you), katulong (help), or yaya (nanny, if she focuses on taking care of the child/ren). This is a practice that been passed along through generations that I never questioned it.

Young women, usually coming from impoverished families in rural areas, come to work in well-to-do households to earn money to send back to their own families. They live with the family for a small monthly salary; sometimes the family would also pay for their education. The driver is mainly economic. In many cases, the help is considered a part of the family. But then there are always the horror stories too. The inherent employer-employee / rich-poor powerplay makes it open to abuse. It is also not uncommon to hear so many horrible stories of the abuse that domestic helpers (Filipino or otherwise) suffer. These women have their own stories to tell, just like the women of the 1960s.

Verdict: A challenging read beautiful story which exposes racism while graciously honouring friendships and celebrating the truth.

First line: Mae Mobley was born on an early Sunday morning in August, 1960.

Last line: Cause just last night I thought I was done with everthing new.

Read snippets of The Help on my Book Beginnings and Friday 56 post.

1 comment

  1. I really enjoyed this too and your review is spot on. The story was touching & complex, and like you, I thought the author did a wonderful job in producing a book on such a heavy subject, in a way that everyone can relate to.


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