I just finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stocket and just loved it. Struck me as a cross between Gone with the Wind and Little Women. Ms. Stocket does a great job of writing in the voice of an oppressed black woman, which she had apprehension about trying to do. Of course, I'm just another white woman, so perhaps my opinion isn't the best to judge by. But to me, it rang very true.
There have been many books written about slavery, racism, and oppression, but it's still shocking to me that this was going on in America just forty years ago. It's one of those things that you know to be true, but every time you hear it, it's still shocking.
The characters Ms. Stocket creates are unforgettable. Aibileen, a woman of intelligence, bravery, a great writer and kind soul, working as a maid, living alone after the death of her only child. Minny, loud and strong, never afraid to speak her mind or stand up for herself, except when it comes to her abusive husband. Miss Celia, a woman who married above her class, but is shunned by every woman in town for her white trash ways. Miss Hilly, the queen bee, socialite extraordinaire, that rules the town with her elitism and prejudice packaged as the healthy, christian way of life. She ends up eating shit. Literally. So wonderful when a character gets their just desserts.
And you can't leave out Miss Skeeter. A woman who believes there's more that defines a woman than getting married and having kids. She's the central character that brings it all together. With her explosive idea to write a book documenting the lives of maids in her hometown, she begins crossing a line that's seriously dangerous in Mississippi in the 1960's. But as Aibileen tells us, there were never any lines anyway. "I used to believe in em. I don't anymore. They in our heads. People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there. But they ain't."
The book is also a reminder of how important words can be, how powerful it is to have a voice. Minny worries repeatedly that they're risking their lives to write this book, and why? How important can it be, what they're doing, telling what it is to be a maid. "This ain't . . . we aint' doing no civil rights here. We just telling stories like they really happen."
But isn't that the lesson of the novel? The importance of our real life stories? Just telling your story, having that voice, is a freedom, a right. The power in speaking up, of saying the way things really are, there's often no braver or more political an act. Fiction or no, it's a statement.
Many of the most notorious moments of the sixties are woven seamlessly through the novel: the Ku Klux Klan, the assassination of JFK, the Freedom March led by Martin Luther King. To imagine what it must have been to a be a black woman in Mississippi during that time, it's heart wrenching and terrifying. Or even to be a white woman in Mississippi trying to defy the expectations of marriage and children, recognizing the racism all around you perpetuated by your friends and family for the hate that it actually is.
The Help is a passionate story of women and our universal bonds. As Miss Skeeter realizes by the end of the novel: "Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought. But Lou Anne, she understood the point of the book before she ever read it. The one who was missing the point this whole time was me."
Isn't it great when you finally get it?