How good is "The Help"? How many books do you know that effortlessly combine moral probity and social consciousness with a wittiness that makes you grin with delight? The year is 1962, Skeeter Whelan comes home from Old Miss with her BA and a yen to write. Her first assignment turns out to be an expose of racism...not the headline making kind that Medger Evers and Martin Luther King were fighting at the time, not school segregation, equal rights and voter registration, but the quiet, insidious kind found in every genteel Southern household. In other words, Skeeter's job is to reveal what it's really like to be a black maid in a white home.
Our would-be writer goes to the source, the maids themselves, but is able to coax only two--under promise of anonymity--to work with her: Minnie, whose outspokenness has cost her many, many jobs, and Abileen, who is considered a jewel, a treasure, and wholeheartedly trusted to raise her employers' precious (and seemingly endless supply of)babies...but not to use the family toilet. Soon, the other maids come flocking to tell their tales.
It's apparent that the church-going, mimosa-scented caucasian ladies of this world haven't made much progress from the days of Simon Legree. Oh, sure, nobody is taking a whip to the cleaning lady, but no law says you can't subject her to a humiliating series of rules, interrogations and suspicions.
The writing is so light and so fresh, you don't quite realize how seriously the writer, Kathryn Stockett, treats the subject. The book is funny...but it's never slapstick and never resorts to caricature, even when Stockett sits us among a group of white ladies sipping cool drinks and planning a fundraiser to save 'the poor black Africans' -- while guilelessly and guiltlessly exploiting the black woman serving them their diet sodas.
And the book isn't a one-note opera. Minnie is, at least on one occasion, the victim of her own misconceptions, and not any misbehavior on the part of a wholly benign employer. Hired by a "white trash" gal who married up, she must remain invisible from the husband. Her employer wants him to believe that she is the cooking/cleaning/washing and ironing wonder. When Minnie is finally caught in the act of cleaning by the husband, she panics...only to find him amused by the situation. It's a very funny scene. The husband walks in wielding an axe (he's cutting down a tree), but all Minnie sees is a big white guy, armed and dangerous. They explain themselves and friendship is brokered over sandwiches.
In some aspects, The Help a look a prejudice from two angles, but it doesn't falter in pointing out where the real culpability lies. The Help inspires thought and raises awareness...but never sledgehammers the message. You can enjoy the book as light reading, an amusing book about Southern mores, or you can go for the message. Either way, it's worth reading. This is Kathryn Stockett's first novel. Judging from the way it's climbed the best-seller charts, we'll be reading her next offering very soon. I can't wait.