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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The success of her first novel The Help, for American author Kathryn Stockett, is what every writer must dream of. When the book was first published in February 2009 every bookseller had a request from the publisher to order 5 copies – we were told this was a book all of our customers would want to read. The resulted in putting the book immediately on the bestseller lists – and keeping it there. Still in hardcover well over a year later, the momentum continues as the book is selected by book clubs. It just sells and sells, proving the power of marketing. Not that The Help is not a good book – it is – it just is not a great book.

The Help is about the hired help, all black women, working for white women in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. The white women are young – most in their early twenties, living the same privileged lives that their mothers lived before them. Many of their families would have had slaves before abolition. They attend the Junior League, meet for Bridge parties, and raise money for children in Africa. What they don’t do is think about the lives of the black women who care for their white babies and children, clean their homes and cook their meals. If a maid disappoints she can be replaced. Most women – and I say women, because this is truly a “chick book”, who are reading The Help have probably also read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, so even if you are not old enough to remember the unrest and violence in Mississippi in the 1960’s you have probably read about it.

As the novel begins we meet the white women and their maids – two are especially interesting. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, who misses the maid who lived with her family while she was growing up, and notices that these black women have lives outside of the white homes where they work. Skeeter begins to think about how it must feel to spend years of your life looking after other people’s children, and with a desire to write, she chooses to write about the lives of these women and their relationships with their white employers. The other interesting character is one of the white wives, Miss Celia – “white trash” is what the other wives call her – but she alone treats her maid, Minny, as someone of value. The other white women are stereotypical – I assume – of most privileged white women of the time. I don’t imagine this book is on the bestseller list in Mississippi, it is not kind.

It was not until about the middle of the book, when the KKK assassination of Medgar Evers takes place, that it really struck me that I was reading about the reality of life in Mississippi in the 1960’s. And now, 50 years later – only 50 years – we have a black man as President of the United States. We witnessed the jubilation of Americans the night of the election – not just black Americans. Then we watched Michelle Obama stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue with such confidence and pride. As I read this novel I wondered how many of the women who lived the real lives of the characters portrayed in The Help would have been alive to witness these events.

Then comes the Kennedy assassination, sending the whole nation into shock. Bob Dylan’s “…you’ll sink like a stone, For the times they are a-changin…” on the radio. It is a time of change, whether the white women of Jackson, Mississippi like it or not.

The Help, a good read – and an education.

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