Thursday, 9 December 2010
Help me put this book down!
The critically-acclaimed The Help by Kathryn Stockett, set in the 1960s in the segregated Deep South, is a seriously impressive book. This page-turner, a kind of slow Mississippi Burning, is told from three points of view.
In the book African American domestic servants (the coloured help) Aibileen and Minny work for the white ladies of Jackson, the creme de la creme of society. Aibileen has raised 17 white children, but sadly her own son was killed in an accident at a lumber yard, while Minny can't hold down a job because she talks back to the white women. And then there's 22-year-old Skeeter Phelan, a young white lady who has recently come home from college, Ole Miss, to find out her childhood maid has mysteriously disappeared.
While Aibileen and Minny are simply trying to make a living, Skeeter is in the enviable position of being able to pursue her ambition of being a writer. Inspired by her maid Constantine, who vanished, she comes up with the idea of collating the stories of the maids, for a publication. The worst of the female bosses, Miss Hilly, a Cruella De Vil character, treats Minny like a thief. And she campaigns to have Jackson households install extra toilets so that colored help do not have to use white families’ bathrooms.
Given that this is set in the 1960s, if any of the white women found out their servants had been talking publicly, they would have fired them. Furthermore, it a also illegal in Mississippi as it contravenes the Jim Crow segregation laws. Descriptions of the early activities of the civil rights movement are peppered throughout the novel and it gives it a true authentic setting.
This is an utterly compelling and thought-provoking book and I dare anyone to say otherwise. At first glance my initial reaction was that it's far too commercial for me, but how wrong I was. When I started reading, I couldn't stop, and this book, which deserves all the praise in the world, prompted many 4am reading stints.
Apparently Kathryn Stockett spent five years writing this novel, which clocked up almost 50 rejections from literary agents (high five Kathryn!) It was a number one New York Times Bestseller and has sold all over the world. A movie starring Sissy Spacek and Emma Stone is due to be released next year.