Article published on June 25, 2011.
Aibileen and Minnie are black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 60’s, and segregation is a fact of life, for them. White people are an unknown quantity, people with so much power that even the nice ones are not to be trusted – but when Miss Skeeter starts poking around to try and find out what happened to her own childhood maid, an unlikely bond begins to form between the three women as they seek to set the world to rights in a way that could endanger them all. As their story unfolds, the backdrop of Jackson’s white socialites and their unthinking discrimination and ignorance provides a canvas against which the tale plays out beautifully.
This book will change your life. There is no other way to put it; it will change the way you look at the world, and change it forever. The insights Kathryn Stockett gives you into segregationalist Mississippi, and the way in which she makes the past come to life is nothing short of magical.
By having protagonists on either side of the racial divide, Stockett allows you to look at the issue from two different directions at once, showing not only the way in which segregation affected sympathetic white people, but also how it looked from the inside as it imprisoned the black population in a choiceless, futureless impasse.
Whether her representation of mid-twentieth-century Jackson is accurate, I’m hardly qualified to say; not only am I white, I was not alive at the time and I can only rely on what I can imagine. But regardless of its historical accuracy, The Help reads as a deeper truth and provides its readers with invaluable insights into the psychology of people taking a baffling situation for granted as the life they were born into.
There are no bad things to say about The Help. There is no negative consideration. Sure, Hilly Holbrook – the villain of the piece – strikes the twenty-first-century mind as a comic-book bad guy. But there is no disconnect there, because ultimately, the social and legal situation was just as ludicrous as the antagonist representing it seems to be. The ridiculousness of the point of view she clings to is obvious to the modern mind, but Stockett paints the paradigm in which her protagonists were born so seamlessly that you can almost understand why it went unquestioned by so many; not only because the status quo was advantageous to them, but also out of the acceptance borne from familiarity.
The Help shows you the world these people were born into, and the way in which its inadequacies began to be redressed by brave people the world over who were willing to risk it all for a better tomorrow.
Read an extract from The Butterfly Cabinet, by Bernie McGill