Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Book Review: The Help
You might like this book if you like to read current bestsellers, you are interested in an interesting perspective on every-day racial tensions and relationships in the dawning of the civil rights movement, or you like good stories with women as the main characters.
I feel complete now. I've finally read The Help. I know, it took me long enough! I started hearing about this book in the spring sometime and casually went searching for it at my library, completely unaware of its popularity. On June 3, I became number 218 in the reserve queue for this Book Club Juggernaut. Last week, my number came up! Fortunately I was too busy during the summer to be tempted to buy it, so I got myself over to the library and picked it up before the deadline.
I know why it is making the rounds. It has a lot to inspire thinking, talking and sharing among readers. It raises hard questions, forces the reader to come to terms with things not often talked about, and in spite of its very specific subject matter, has a universal quality. The characters are interesting, the writing is good, and the story feels authentic. In short, I thought it was a wonderful read and worth the wait.
It is primarily the story of three women: Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. They live in Jackson, MS in the early 1960's. One is a young, white, wealthy college graduate, the trust-fund endowed daughter of a cotton plantation. The other two are black maids employed by white families in the town. The first is trying to figure out who she is and what she values, and the other two become her unexpected mentors in that task. The story begins in 1962 or so, with the heady effects of Rosa Parks keeping her place in the front of the bus still heavy in the southern air. It keeps time with mentions of the murder of Medger Evers, the loss of JFK and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Along the way, the main characters become activists in their own, very personal, civil rights movement, and the issues they tackle really bring to life the realities of the damage that generations of slavery did to the fabric of American society.
I think it had a certain deeper meaning for me because I employ "help." Someone with a true talent for it cleans my house every week. She has become a friend, as have her children, and we have had interaction outside the parameters of her employment, but because she is a Hispanic immigrant, there are things to think about. I like to think that I value her for herself and that her expertise and skill at cleaning my house are no different than my other friend's expertise and skill at teaching me piano, but I don't know. Is it that simple? It's a little different when someone is washing your toilets and admittedly, sometimes I feel strange letting her do those kinds of tasks.
She needs the money and chooses to do this kind of work to earn it. I function much better with that weekly deadline to remind me to de-clutter and organize so she can clean the surfaces. So, is it symbiotic or exploitative? I hope it's not the latter, because, in addition to paying her well, I do love and respect her and value the time we've spent together. Like in the book though, she thinks it is funny and odd and sometimes is even uncomfortable when I work alongside her doing other tasks like changing the sheets, cleaning carpets and doing the laundry or when I won't let her clean my kids' rooms if they haven't excavated the mess on the floor that week. She fully expects to come in and do it all and still will not call me by only my first name. That really hit home while I was reading this. My housecleaner calls me Miss Kellie, just like the maids call "their white ladies" in the book.
I'm not sure how I feel about that now.
Posted by Kellie on Tuesday, September 21, 2010