“…it was like something cracked open inside of me, not unlike a watermelon, cool and soothing and sweet. I always thought insanity would be a dark, bitter feeling, but it is drenching and delicious if you really roll around in it.”
Aibileen Clark is a black maid to a white family in 1962, Jackson, Mississippi. She has no family of her own after her only son dies in an accident. The loss changes something in her, making her less forgiving than she used to be.
Minny Jackson is Aibileen’s best friend and the sassiest woman in Mississippi; her straight talk has cost her 19 jobs. She has an abusive husband and five kids.
Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan is a 20 years old white woman who returns home after graduating. She dreams of being a writer-journalist, but her mother only wants her to get married like the other girls her age. Gradually she starts noticing things she was ignorant about before. Her desire to find out what happened to her own family maid, Constantine, sets in motion a chain of thoughts and events that bring changes in all three women’s lives and the society they live in.
The well-developed characters and their poignant, distinct narratives give the book its charm and make it interesting. There was never any doubt about who was telling the tale. Aibileen’s storytelling was not always enjoyable, though hers had the more grave reflections and her relationship with Mae Mobley is very moving. Skeeter’s narrative was the least impressive, mostly because she seemed naive or unobservant a lot. She failed to properly grasp the magnitude of her actions and the realities of life, through almost the whole book. Minny’s narrative was the most enjoyable, not just because of the humour. Her voice seemed the most natural, and her story the balance between the other two, though the abuse she suffers seems to be lost among her sass and antics. But the diversity of the different characters is very well portrayed.
The three women take a tremendous risk in the hope of finding a better future. The varying relationships, the friendships which can bring about significant changes in the lives of people are nicely written. There are many lessons to be learnt as well: the power of the written word, that love doesn’t bother with skin colour and class, and misleading appearances.
I’ve read that some people feel the main protagonists somehow manage to stay away from the brutal social and public atrocities and horrors that blacks went through. I don’t know enough about those times to presume to contradict those who did not find the book accurate enough, even in terms of the accents. But I would say that the characters may be relatively safe, but the inner workings and cruelty of their professions; how the small, everyday negatives eroded the happiness, dignity and peace of mind of these women at the hands of their employers, is no less if not more, than the physical horrors that happened to people around them, and are well portrayed.
The whole point of the book seems to be to make us question what was and is the more effective method of silencing those who rebel, those who speak out, those who are different. As Minny explains, the black maids were traumatized, humiliated and kept quiet by more subtle games than violence and death that threatened their livelihood and more.
Also how despite the horrors and atrocities and violence, people retained their dignity, did not become cynical, and forged through life. How despite the bad, there is good that exists in even the most unlikely of places, and how bonds can be forged across all lines and differences.
Moreover, if the book had been any more serious, it would have lost the charm which the humours of the characters bring. It would’ve been a darker, more depressing book, not meant for regular reading and probably read by fewer people. The Help has a balance of drama, fun and seriousness to make it relevant yet enjoyable. It teaches and generates awareness without leaving the genre of fiction, by mixing it with the humorous and normal elements of life, which don’t necessarily disappear amongst dangers.
The book is thought provoking. It was longer than I expected, but never boring. It evokes pathos, makes one cry, laugh, feel and think.
[I have to admit, it was Johnny and Minny’s inevitable meeting and what follows that fuelled my curiosity more than anything and kept me reading the book.]