Where were you when JFK got shot? Younger women look dazed when you ask that question – they were not yet alive – but those of us who do remember know the impact of the question.
Stockett takes us back to that time in her first novel, The Help, but uniquely tailors her story to the South. This is the South of segregation, of white women who do lunch, bridge, and junior league – with fundraisers for “the poor starving children of Africa” while their black maids – treated one step above slavery – run the white women’s homes, cook their meals, and raise their children.
The help carry the story as strong, determined, underappreciated, and underestimated. Close friends, Aibileen and Minny, put up with a lot from their respective employers. They progress from living in fear of losing their jobs, going to jail, or even being killed by the white man (or their husbands) – to the strength and courage of convictions that led the civil rights movement.
Of course, they know a lot about what goes on inside those homes and country clubs – noone would imagine they would ever tell or retaliate for being treated so horribly – but… when opportunity presents itself…
Stockett uses a fictionalized version of herself as the white catalyst, Skeeter, who mobilizes the troops – surreptiously helping the maids tell their stories in a book, and begin the road to freedom. In her appendix “Too Little, Too Late,” Stockett confesses her own vulnerability as a young white Southern woman.
You can’t help wonder if the character Hilly is that demented girl from high school who always looked perfect, led the clique that ruled opinions of everyone else, and never seemed to get what was coming to her. Just like in the movies, Stockett pays her back nicely in her book. “I heard Miss Hilly’s scream” is the funniest yet most terrifying line in the book.
The plot is riveting and you will keep reading to get the next installment. Stockett’s attempt at writing/speaking like a black woman doesn’t measure up to Mark Twain; unless you are Mark Twain, it’s probably not a good idea to try.
Book groups should love this book for discussion, but its message can be easily lost in the literal translation of insipid Southern white women being brought up by selfless black women, or perhaps focusing on the coming-of-age of Skeeter.
Stockett says her favorite line in the novel is “Wasn’t that the point of the book? We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not as much as I’d thought.”
Daily survival is hard, but it’s always amazing to see what women do – to – and sometimes for – each other.