Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960.
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help became an international bestseller 2010 and was adapted into an Oscar-winning blockbuster in 2011, a year after release. Late to the party as always, I only picked up this book last month but very quickly realised what I had been missing.
Set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, The Help tells the story of three extraordinary women and how a seemingly insane and law-breaking idea brings them together and into each other’s worlds. Aibileen and Minny are black maids raising white children and running white households and whilst they are trusted to cook, clean and educate the next generation of masters and mistresses, they are far from considered equal. Skeeter is a frustrated College student and socialite whose unconventional appearance has apparently scuppered any chance of marriage, a dream so many of her friends have realised. It’s only when Skeeter decides to write about the lives of the women hidden in the kitchens of Jackson that the established walls of ‘them’ and ‘us’ begin to fall…
Having read the acknowledgements at the end of this book, it is clear that The Help was the book Stockett had to write. The passion and purpose in the author creates a living narrative, so rich in content and character that you immediately understand why it became an international bestseller. The people of Jackson, Mississippi live and breathe in their imagined small-town community and come to life as easily as the people of Harper Lee’s Maycomb County.
The narrative is divided into our three main character’s voices, each taking a chapter at a time to develop the story. I adored the experience of getting to know Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter – they are such vibrant and different characters that they keep the story moving and fresh. If I’m being picky, I would have liked a little more crossover with Minny and Skeeter. I think the opportunity for Skeeter to meet Minny’s reclusive mistress would have been interesting but the story manages just fine without it!
The range of issues and prejudices covered in this story are enough to keep book groups busy for days and yet it isn’t preachy. There is a matter-of-factness about The Help which allows the reader the space to see the flaws in Jackson society themselves. Real, historical civil rights events are mentioned in the narrative (though occasionally a little shoehorned in) but there is always a purpose to their mention and it helps to give the story its place in social history. The activities and inequality within the book may seem a world away from the more liberal society we’d like to think we have today but the 1960s were really not that long ago at all and the time, events and facts stand as a good reminder of that in the novel.
Stockett’s small-town novel packed a big-time punch and I was completely taken away by the story. I loved exploring the ins and outs of domestic life in Jackson and Aibileen’s methodical thinking, Skeeter’s dreaming and Minny’s straight-talking combine to create a entertaining and enriched narrative that uses the issues of below-stairs and domesticity to demonstrate the issues in the wider world. I’ve held back on watching the film but now I shall settle down for a viewing I think…