The 552-page turner novel ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett has sold over 7 million copies worldwide. The debut novel is narrated via a symphony of three different women in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s during the early years of the American Civil Rights movement. The Help firmly belongs in the Top 100 Novels of all time due to its compelling narrative that merges both fact and fiction to create a book of social awakening.
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Kathryn Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. Stockett based her unique subject matter on her own childhood of being raised by the black domestic help in the segregated South. When Stockett reached adulthood and moved to the North, she then experienced a new lifestyle of non-racism and a realization of the South’s insular views towards race. The journey to publishing her debut novel in 2009 wasn’t smooth after facing rejection from 60 literary agents but from the day it was published, the book became a phenomenon.
‘The Help’ has prominently placed itself within the Top 100 books of all time as it has been compared to the likes of the revered Harper Lee’s novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. With raving reviews from well-known organizations like the New York Times, “A wildly popular winning novel… Book groups armed with hankies will talk about their quiet bravery and the outrageous insults dished out by their employers”. Often 21st Century culture longs to understand the past, The Help explores and details the social structures, stories and customs of a segregated town in the 1960s.
Stockett attempts to blend race, class and social barriers throughout the intertwining plot. The novel is narrated by three different women in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s all experiencing the strict views and customs of the time. Miss Eugenia Phelan (Skeeter) who is one of the narrators is a 22-year-old Southern lady and a graduate from Ole Miss. After years at College she comes home to find her beloved maid, Constantine, gone and with no answers to her disappearance. Skeeter tries to catch up with the years she has missed with her (old sorority? Girls) and to advance upon her dream of becoming a writer which starts off rocky as her first job is with the Jackson Journal writing a housekeeping column. With Skeeter scouting her sole purpose for writing, she comes up with a controversial idea of interviewing black maids who spend their lives taking care of prominent white families. This leads to narrators like Aibileen and Minny who both share the same fears and experiences within White households making ends meet in a town with a racist status quo.
One compelling factor of the novel that intrigues readers is the characters. Within the novel there are clear villains and protagonists. Miss Hilly is the president of the Jackson Junior League, her fundamental race beliefs and her motives form ‘The Home Help Sanitation Initiative’. Hilly represents what peoples’ fundamentalist ideas were in the area of the South in 1960s. The novel shows Skeeter as the protagonist who is willingly taking a risk of becoming an outsider within a narrow-minded community by involving herself in the private lives of the Help. Although Skeeter believes she is taking a risk, it is obvious that she is naïve and oblivious to the fact that both Aibileen, Minny and the other maids are willing to share their stories which risks not just their reputation but also their lives and the safety of their loved ones. Stockett has carefully constructed Minny and Aibileen to have different personalities as Minny is a sassy smart mouth maid and Aibileen is wise and cautious of her actions. This creates a harmonious balance of portraying both sides of the experience as both of their personalities have affected their working life. Both maids also struggle with life situations that readers may feel for or relate to as Aibileen is still mourning over her son’s death and Minny is dealing with bringing up a young family full of kids as well as her alcoholic, abusive husband. One character that I found quite intriguing was Cecilia, a woman who is referred to as ‘white trash’ for being raised out on the grid and struggling to find acceptance. I believe my experience of the reading the novel would have been more fulfilled if I saw more of an insight of Cecilias fear of not fitting in and her reasons behind treating the Help with such kindness compared to others.
The relationships between the characters is an interesting dimension of the plot. The intimate portrayals of the maid’s relationships with their employers and children they care for demonstrates both the racist treatment of maids and the loving connection between the child and maid. Interesting enough, Aibileen works for Miss Elizabeth who is part of Hillys exclusive girls’ group. Aibileen has raised seven children in her working life and continuously sees the children grow up with racists mindsets but Elizabeths baby, Mae Bobby is going to be different. Aibileen and Mae Bobby start to create a warm relationship and teaches her to combat racism. This is somewhat mirrored by Skeeter and her maid who had disappeared, as their relationship shaped Skeeters views of knowing that Jackson’s racist ways were not morally correct. The relationships within the novel of the shunned friendship between Skeeter and the maids as well as Mae Bobby and Aibileen delivers a sense of hope for the readers that times will change which we now experience.
Stockett’s mentions of historical events and passings develop upon the time of the novel is set and information that can education the readers. From mentioning civil rights movements figures like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and other internationally well-known mourning’s like, John F Kennedy’s assassination. Stockett even incorporates mentions of the groundbreaking novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee which would have been a much talked about novel. Within ‘The Help’ it also heavily refers to the Jim Crow Laws which were nasty regulations that segregated blacks from the whites. Stockett involves theses laws within the plot as Skeeters actions towards interviewing the Help is a risk for the maids as they are breaking one of the many laws. The novel delves into risks and consequences that the Help can receive but doesn’t detail the gruesome black murders, sexual assault and violence that was disgusting overwhelming in the 1960s. Stockett though still does stick to core events that influence the feel and context of the era.
‘The Help’ by Katherine Stockett involves well developed characters, intriguing relationships and historical educative events that shape the context of the 1960s. The Help firmly belongs in the Top 100 Novels of all time due to its compelling narrative that merges both fact and fiction to create a book of social awakening.
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