April 2011

I am sure it is every writer’s dream to pen a bestseller and to achieve this with your first novel must be hugely gratifying.   The Help by Kathryn Stockett is such a book and has won plaudits throughout the English-speaking world.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, it explores the relationship between white people and their black servants.  Skeeter Phelan has returned home after graduating to discover her beloved nanny, Constantine, has disappeared.  Her mother refuses to be drawn on the subject, saying simply that she has left.   Skeeter’s efforts to discover Constantine’s fate lead her into conversations with her friends’ servants (the ‘Help’ of the title) and a dawning realisation of her own ignorance regarding the lives of these black women.   An aspiring writer, she hits on the idea of revealing these women’s stories to the world at large and it is the struggle to write and publish this book within a book that gives The Help its narrative arc.

Skeeter is unmarried, much to her mother’s despair, and their relationship afforded much of the comic detail throughout the novel.   Tall and skinny with unruly hair, she has always felt as though she lives in the margins of her friends’ lives.   Perhaps it is this sense of being on the ‘outside’ that enables her to critically analyse the social mores that drive the society within which she lives.  The white people of Jackson are entrenched in their views, shaped by prejudice and bigotry and legitimised by the abhorrent Jim Crow laws.   As Skeeter becomes aware of the price black people have to pay for her own privileged lifestyle, she becomes more and more alienated from her friends.   We meet the dreadful Hilly, determined that every home should have a separate toilet for the ‘Help’.  Then there is Elizabeth, so intent on carving out her own social niche that she ignores her baby daughter, Mae Mobley (one of the most endearing characters in the book).   Luckily Mae has Aibileen to look after her and the relationship between this little girl and her black nanny is beautifully drawn.   Finally there is Minny, a fiercely independent black woman with a sassy mouth, which has cost her many jobs.

The story is told from three points of view – Skeeter’s, Aibileen’s and Minny’s –  each written in the first person present tense, which draws the reader right into their lives.  As their friendship develops we are made aware of the serious repercussions of flouting the strict segregation laws and the threat of violence is palpable.    This wonderful book made us both cry and laugh out loud – it is not perfect but nonetheless we all loved it.

We meet again on 5th May when we will discuss The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.

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