(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)
I come to write this blog post just after reading the riot act to my own house staff. Right now, my family of five lives in India and we have the good fortune of having a driver, a cook, a house cleaner, a guard, and a laundress. But all of that “help” comes with some (major) unhelpfulness too. You find yourself trying to decide what is acceptable within your own house and what exactly you are responsible for in the lives of those who work for you. You have be very careful to be sure you are the one establishing the rules while maintaining compassion and understanding.
So, I would say that I read The Help from a different angle than most Americans would. I also grew up in the South (at least for the most part). So I totally “got” this book. It is set in Mississippi in the early 1960s. The main character is a recent graduate from Ole Miss and she returns home to find that life is pretty much as she left it. Her name is Skeeter.
One of the early conflicts in the story is that one of Skeeter’s friends has decided to make it her personal campaign that no maids should be allowed to use the bathroom facilities within the houses where they work. As a result of her friend’s campaign, another friend named Mrs. Leefolt decides to press her husband to build a maid’s bathroom in the garage – even though they cannot really afford it. She does not want her daughter using the same bathroom as her maid for “sanitary” reasons. Ironically, it is the maid’s bathroom that her daughter prefers and it is where her daughter learns to properly use the toilet.
Your initial reaction to this is probably very similar to mine – “that is absolutely ridiculous”. But then it didn’t take me long to put two and two together and remember the fact that my staff does not use the bathroom in our house either. Hmmmmm. Oh uh. Now the ugly is staring me right in the face.
I had to do a little self evaluation there – slightly painful – but necessary. (And that is what a great story should do – make you think a little.) So, ouch. But, it is a little different for me (did I just write that out loud ). Four of the five people who work for us are men and I have two younger daughters. We do have two proper bathrooms in the back of the house (in the staff quarters) that they are welcome to use any time. But dang it, as liberal minded as I like to think I am – my staff does not use the bathroom in our house and that is not likely to change anytime soon. It’s true – when you point your finger at someone – you get three staring right back attacha. Dang it.
But this isn’t about my life in India (I actually have a blog for that already A Reason To Write) – it is a book review so I should add here that I loved the story. It was surprising to learn that this is Kathryn Stockett’s first book. I felt completely connected to the characters. I wanted to know what would happen in their lives. I understood why they made the decisions that they made – even when I did not agree with them. I laughed and sympathized and stomped my foot. The book totally grabbed me and held me close. My friend Nancy summed it up nicely when she said, “I am going to miss those girls” after putting the book down for the last time.
A lot of discussions that I have had about this book focus on who is the best character. Honestly, they all bring something to the table. There is Skeeter whose mother desperately wants her to get married and to have straight hair. Skeeter desperately wants to live her own life and to just be accepted by her mother for who she is. Skeeter shakes things up quite a bit in the book and, with the help of Aibileen, brings a big dose of justice to the entire story. There is also Mrs. Hilly who is just a text book Southern belle snot. And Minny who takes no prisoners but really does have a soft spot in her heart.
Another major player is Constantine. She was Skeeter’s family maid who disappeared right before Skeeter returned home from college. Nobody was giving up any details, especially Skeeter’s mom, about where she went and why she left. Part of Skeeter’s growth through the novel comes from the slow revelation of where Constantine really went and why. The reality of what happened in many ways shaped Skeeter’s relationship with her own mother more than Skeeter’s own relationship with her mother did.
Mae Mobley is Mrs. Leefolt’s daughter. She is the apple of her maid’s eye. The relationship between Mae Mobley and Aibileen is fascinating and I would love to see a sequel to this book on Mae Mobley as an adult. She receives much more love and compassion from her maid than from her own mother. How that would manifest itself in Mae Mobley’s adult life would surely make for more good reading.
But my favorite of all is Celia. She married up and no one can understand how she managed to do it. She is so desperate to be perfect that she fails miserably at it – partly because she simply doesn’t even know what to do and partly because absolutely no one will give her a chance. She finally gets to attend the “party of all parties” as she sees it and ends up wearing a horrid dress and drinking so much she throws up. I think I enjoyed her character the most because she is the one who shows a real connection between the help and the family. Her maid is Minny – who is a mess in her own right. She just couldn’t manage to keep her sassy mouth shut. That sass of hers got her fired and kept her from getting another job – except with Celia – who didn’t rank high enough to get the full details on Celia.
Anyway, Celia is an outcast and her lifeline becomes Minny on several levels. She ends up saving her in a number of ways but then literally saves her life. They balance each other out so nicely. And they actually care about each other. Celia is caught between desperately wanting to fit in but feeling more comfortable with her staff. The relationships are sad and fascinating and mostly sincere.
This book is also about the roles women play in general as wives, mothers, friends, bosses, etc. They are universal roles no matter the generation or the date or the setting. The role of the mother is the same no matter what your upbringing and a mother who loses a child feels that loss deeply no matter how big her wallet is. The characters in this book are full of life, love, trust, mistrust, and they are all looking for a purpose.
It is fantastic read and Nancy is right – you will miss these girls when you are done. Enjoy!
The great news is that if you are in DC you can meet Kathryn here:
Tuesday, September 21 – 8:00 PM
DC Area Fall for the Book Festival
Reston Center Stage Theater
2310 Colts Neck Road
Reston, VA 20191