Genre: historical fiction
Setting: 1960s, USA - Mississippi
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Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960.
The Help of the title refers to the black women domestics who worked all other the southern states, the maids and cleaners who went into the homes of “polite” society and looked after children, cleaned house, cooked, and generally looked after everyone before returning to their own homes to do the same there. Specifically this is about two maids, Aibileen and Minny, who agree to tell the story of their lives to Miss Skeeter, a white woman in her twenties who wants to be a writer.
I’ll be honest and say that I probably wouldn’t have picked this up apart from the fact that I’d heard so many good reports of it. And that I finished my previous read and this was just sitting there when I had a two hour train ride ahead of me. And I’m so glad that I did take it with me because it really is a wonderful book.
In a way it is the sort of novel that gets dismissed as a “woman’s book” or “domestic fiction”. A description I hate because although that may very well be the setting it seems to limit the themes of the book. Not to mention the fact that straight away it limits who may read it. It is seen, by some, as a lesser book than those written about the exact same themes only from a more political point of view. Of course I’m one of those who believe that while the private should stay private, it is still politics. What happens inside a household is in many ways much more important than so-called global events.
Anyways, back to the book
I really really enjoyed it. It is touching and funny and heart-breaking all at the same time. You really come to feel that the three main characters are real people. They all have flaws and problems, that is what makes them real. Skeeter, the main white character, had no intention of ever becoming involved in “the race issue” she just wanted to write something that would get published. That, initially, was the extent of her interest. But through getting to know Aibileen and Minny she grows and comes to realise just how much she has been blind to over the years. And while she has always known of the racial divide she never really knew what it meant.
I think that in many ways Minny was my favourite character. She has worked in many homes in Jackson over the years, her “smart mouth” and sass meant she was often fired and forced to move on. She knows about “the lines” between folk, and tries to be pragmatic about it. But at the same time as she deals with what it is to be a black woman in this southern state she also must raise a family and deal with her husband, Leroy, who often comes home drunk and abusive.
Aibileen is in many ways the heart of the book. We open with her soon after her own son died, and when she is raising her seventeenth white child. Mae Mobley is neglected and unloved by her own mother, and Aibileen tries her best to let the child know that she has value and importance. And at the same time she must deal with her own loss, her own home is empty when she returns to it at night.
So if you’ve heard all the hype about this book and it has put you off, or you really don’t think this is one for you I’d urge you to reconsider. Give it a few chapters and see if you don’t want to keep right on reading.