The Help by Kathryn Stockett

February 20, 2010

Plot summary (with spoilers): Set in Mississippi in the early 1960’s, The Help is told from three alternating viewpoints. One narrator is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a progressive young college grad from an upper middle-class white family who dreams of being a writer. Another narrator is Aibileen, a middle-aged black woman who has been a maid her whole life, raising no less than 17 white children in the process. And the last narrator is Minny, another black maid in her thirties who is Aibileen’s best friend despite the fact that the two women couldn’t be more different. All three women talk mostly of the same event: Skeeter’s idea for a book in which black maids give the real scoop on what it’s like to work for white women.

This is a radical idea for the time, especially because blacks were still considered second-class citizens. Indeed, one recurring plot point centered on Skeeter’s friend Hilly’s insistence that everyone should build separate bathrooms for their maids to use so they wouldn’t pick up any “black diseases”. And though many maids long for a chance to have their voices heard, Skeeter has a hard time finding anyone besides Aibileen and Minny to step up and tell their stories, even with the promise of anonymity. The fear of retribution and reprisals is far too great.

But Aibileen’s unwavering dedication to the project gets it off the ground, and the jailing of Yule May, who was caught stealing to help pay for her boys to go to college, incites others to join the cause. Skeeter eventually gets the book written and published thanks to the thirteen brave souls that risk their employers’ ire, and though there are consequences, none of the women regret their participation.

Along the way, various other subplots are addressed, including Skeeter’s love affair with a senator’s son and her mother’s debilitating bout with cancer; Aibileen’s experiences with her latest white child Mae Mobley and her hopes that the girl doesn’t grow up to be anything like her mother; and Minny’s adventures with the imbalanced outcast Celia Foote, as well as her ongoing feud with Hilly due to an incident spoken of only as the Terrible Awful.

Liked:

  • My favorite narrator of all was Minny. I was absolutely fascinated by her relationship with Celia, and could have read a whole book focused on those two alone. I know Celia wasn’t meant to be a completely sympathetic character (even Minny felt contempt for her most of the time), but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her — perhaps because I saw some of myself in her. I’ve been on the wrong side of “society girls” before and know what it’s like to desperately want to fit in. I know the feeling of going to a big event and being treated like a misfit in public. I didn’t like or approve of Celia constantly trying to get on Hilly & Co.’s good side (I would have taken the hint long ago), but I did feel sorry for her and wanted her to triumph in the end.
  • I thought the resistance to sharing stories for Skeeter’s book was portrayed realistically. The maids held out for a long, long time and didn’t give in because of some cheesy speech from Skeeter or Aibileen. They came forward as a show of support for Yule May, one of their own, instead of simply to help Skeeter. It’s just too bad there was no self-publishing or online printing at the time. Then the women wouldn’t have had to worry about the book getting accepted for publication after all the risks they took!
  • I liked how Hilly was portrayed. She wasn’t an over-the-top villainess, but she was definitely worth hating. All of her actions seemed very believable and in keeping with the times and her position. She was petty throughout, and though I wish she’d gotten more of a comeuppance at the end, I was satisfied with the character.

Disliked:

  • There were a lot of boring patches in the book, which made it a bit difficult to get through. As I said, I loved anything having to do with Minny and Celia, and enjoyed almost everything with Aibileen too. But some of the Skeeter stuff was just unnecessary, IMO, including the whole storyline with Skeeter and Stuart Whitworth. I guess I can understand how some readers would like a little romance in the book, but I was bored with it.
  • Much has been made about the abrupt ending, and I have to agree with the critics here… I didn’t like it. We only got to see what happened to Aibileen (which was incredibly heart-wrenching, btw) but not what happened to Minny, Skeeter, or any of the other women. Some have speculated that the open ending leaves room for a sequel or two. I really hope that’s the case because as I said, I would definitely spend time reading about Minny and Celia some more!

Rating:

Overall, I’m not sure that The Help by Kathryn Stockett quite lives up to all the hype it has generated, but it is indeed an admirable debut novel and a worthwhile read. I personally had trouble slogging through the slow patches, though, which is why I give the book 3 stars out of 5.

2 Responses to “The Help by Kathryn Stockett”

  1. I love the book I give it a 5 out of 5 stars. I love the book and the movie

  2. thank you sooooo much for this !

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