Enter a vanished world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver…….
That’s what we read ?on the back cover of The Help by Kathryn Stockett and that theme runs throughout the whole book as we read about white women who are trying to save face with their friends by trying to afford a black maid, trying to keep up with the Joneses by installing a separate toilet for their black maid because of the different and harmful germs they allegedly carry, the incessant non-trust of their black maids in terms of theft and yet the irony of putting complete trust in them to rear their children is shouting loudly and furiously from the pages. The black maids do everything – cooking, cleaning (and yes, miraculously, they don’t spread any germs while cleaning a white person’s bathroom!), looking after young children, grocery shopping and more.
The plot centres around 3 main characters, Skeeter, a young white unmarried woman whose mother is desperate to marry her off and her best friends are both mothers and try to matchmake her too. ?Desperate to get into the world of journalism and publishing, she is given a challenge (by a New York publisher) of writing about something different and together with two maids who have worked for her friends, in collaboration with other maids, they compile a book showing what life is like for black maids, using true stories. It is planned that the book will be anonymous and there is worry all around regarding what will happen to them if they are discovered. That threat is reinforced as we are told about black men shot and/or tortured for challenging white rule, by using ‘white toilets’, for theft of small jewellry items, for stepping over the boundary at all.
One of the best bits of the book was the use of the toilets as a metaphor for how the whites were feeling increasingly threatened by stories of equality up north and how these white women were doing their utmost to remain supreme within their own homes and neighbourhoods.
Minny is a strong character, with a mouth that gets her into trouble with her white employers and she is often fired. It is evident that everyone needs to be employed, otherwise they just can’t survive financially. The only person she can’t stand up to is her husband, who hits her except when she is pregnant. Her newest employer who comes from a very poor white area, seems unaware of the ‘white way’ of treating her servant and Minny is somewhat surprised and irritated by the way she expects them to eat lunch together. Yet, when she complains to others about her new employer, we realise just how poorly she has been treated by others – from descriptions of having to eat her lunch outside even when it is snowing.
Aibileen is raising her seventeenth white child, she always leaves when the child becomes old enough to recognise there is a difference, a difference that is enforced by the parents. Her own son died in a work accident and she mourns him continually yet she gets on with life.
It is a well written book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. By the sound of the response to the film, it has gained huge acclaim too. However, I was a little uncomfortable while reading it. Can a white author really understand and communicate what blacks experienced in the 1960s (not to mention before that)? I can’t remember which black writer said that black women are doubly unenfranchised (was it Maya Angelou?) – from their colour and by their sex and that white women can’t possibly understand the point of view of a black woman. Stockett does touch on that in her ending, she points out that as a child, she thought their maid was lucky to have them as her employers, that she considered them to be her children, ?and how she wishes she had asked her how she felt to be black in 1960s Mississippi. Stockett admits that no white writer can truly understand what it felt to be a black woman back then but as she says so eloquently, it is the trying to understand that is vital to our humanity.
A good book – do read it before you go to see the film 🙂
Next month’s book is Dracula by ?Bram Stoker.
Get your book review published -The Irish County Living supplement of the Farmers Journal is starting a book club of sorts. ?They are inviting readers to contact Ciara and she will send 2 people each month a book to review. You’ll have 3 weeks to read the book and review it. ?(I’m awaiting mine – apparently it is a historical ficition – can’t wait) They will also be posting a list of the books so you can read along with them on their reading list if you like. If you are interested, just email Ciara at cokelly[at]farmersjournal.ie to be part of the reading club.