Opening Lines: “Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime.”
As it turns out, I’ve made up my own mind about this novel…and I’ll have good things to say about it too. It’s rare for me to finish a book and immediately want to start reading it again, but I had that reaction to The Help. Kathryn Stockett’s first novel is thoroughly involving and engaging. It drew me in immediately and kept me reading compulsively; I was trying to read a couple of other books while reading this one on my Kindle, but they had to take a back seat.
I’m both drawn to and cautious about novels set in the South; drawn to them because I lived there for half of my life and still love many things about the region (flaws and all), but cautious because a lot of Southern stories seem to be almost deliberately, self-consciously “quirky,” and that just annoys me. The Help takes place in that flawed but real South, not the exaggeratedly eccentric one. Its characters are well-drawn and developed, and its situations are pulled from real life in a challenging time – Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, as the civil-rights movement was beginning to build. While slavery had ended nearly a hundred years earlier, the world was still black and white, and people’s places in that world were pretty well fixed, while their relationships were more complex than they might appear to be. Yet change was simmering, and it scared people – even people for whom it might mean better things.
The basic plot of The Help might seem a bit unlikely, to be honest. Recent college graduate Skeeter Phelan has no marriage prospects and is actually interested in a career as a writer, but her prospects for that aren’t good either. Her only opportunity is a weekly housekeeping column in the local paper…but as a white, upper-middle-class Southern girl, Skeeter has no experience with domestic chores. Like everyone she knows, her family has always had “help” – a black woman who was charged with cleaning, cooking, and child-rearing. Skeeter would ask her family’s maid to help her with the column, but the maid she grew up with has mysteriously disappeared, and she hasn’t gotten to know the new maid well. Instead, she obtains permission from her friend Elizabeth to go to Elizabeth’s maid, Aibileen, with her questions for the column. Her conversations with Aibileen begin to open Skeeter’s eyes to more than just housekeeping, and they’re eye-opening for Aibileen too. Never forgetting the risks to their lives and livelihood, Aibileen and her friends begin secretly collaborating with Skeeter on a book to tell their stories.
The Help is an excellent example of a character-driven novel, and Stockett has created some vivid and indelible characters, particularly the three narrators, Aibileen, her best friend Minny, and Skeeter. I grew to love them all, but I think Minny was my favorite. Stockett made an interesting, rather controversial narrative choice in using dialect for the first-person narration by Aibileen and Minny; she also made a smart choice in writing Minny’s dialect a bit differently. I didn’t really find it necessary, having enough familiarity with both black and white Southern voices that I probably would have “heard” each character’s voice as intended without the dialect, but not every reader will bring that experience to the book, so I think using it was effective.
I grew to love this book more as I progressed with it, I didn’t want it to end, and I definitely want to read it again, although I’m not going to forget it any time soon. I’ll look forward to Kathryn Stockett’s next novel, but even if there isn’t one, she’s made a big mark on the literary world with The Help. It’s a thought-provoking, well-told story with characters I cared about, and it’s a novel that’s going to stick.