Growing up in New York, I never thought much about the South. Sure, I went to New Orleans once (and didn’t exactly like it) and I had friends who went to Florida for their summer holidays, but the real south existed only in history books. We learnt about civil rights and we learnt about the civil war. Lines were tightly drawn, the events were history and everything was tied up with a well-sealed bow. It didn’t occur to me that these events took place during my parent’s lifetimes or that there might be remnants of race struggles in our current culture.
Of course, I grew up and realized that things weren’t quite as straightforward as they seemed. That world was alive in strange ways and the divisions between different sectors of society (black/white, rich/poor) were still very much felt. It’s a strange relief to know that things weren’t as black and white (no pun intended, but kinda) as they seemed when I was a kid. Still, I’ve always felt detached from these issues.
It was with this separation that I began reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I had the mindset of ‘sure I know this is a problem, but I’m not sure that I really care.’ Well, I feel confident that Stockett’s book will make you care. At least, it will make you care about the characters and help you understand this time period and these racial integration issues on a more human level. Isn’t that what good fiction aims to do?
The book is narrated from split perspectives, following two maids and a white girl living in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 60’s. They all move in roughly the same circles — Skeeter, the white girl’s nickname, is friends with the employers of both maids. Everyone feels hopeless about their current predicament at the start of the book. All three characters are stuck in their current life and don’t see a way in which they can get past their daily drudgeries. Until Skeeter decides to tell the stories of the maids of Jackson.
The book is ultimately the story of Skeeter’s attempt to write an anthology of interviews with different maids, but covers much more than that. While that is the plot that ties everything together, the story covers many more issues than just that. Ultimately, that plot simply serves as a way for us to get to know the characters and watch them liberate themselves from their previous lives.
What makes the book such a success, however, is how loveable the characters are. They are all flawed, but their imperfections are the reason that you love them. Their imperfections unite them more than their differences divide them. You will see bits of yourself in each character: in Skeeter, the writer, and in the maids Aibileen and Minny. Their stories may be worlds apart from your current truth, but the differences only serve to highlight how similar we really are.
I might have waited a long time to read The Help, but I certainly hope that if this is a book you haven’t read you run, don’t walk, to your nearest library or bookstore to get your copy. You won’t be disappointed.
Now guys, was the movie any good?
Have you read The Help? Did you like it? Any other good books I’m missing out on?