What a wonderful, wonderful book!! The Help raised so many emotions and memories for me.
Kathryn Stockett's bestseller shares the experiences living in a small Mississippi town and the wide racial divides between black women who served as maids to white women during the turbulent 60s. Centered on two black maids, Aibileen and Minnie, and one white young woman named Skeeter, this novel tells how these 3 women who join forces to write a book about "the help", the good and the bad experiences of the black maids in service to white families. The novel reveals several powerful elements: the disgraceful state of race relations in the deep south, the seeds of attitudinal change, and the power of the written word. Told from the perspective of these 3 women, it gives us a painful glance into our not so distant history, and the illogical and degrading practices of segregation. One major theme demonstrates the crazy logic of the time. White southern women were more than willing to turn the care and raising of their children over to black maids, but these same maids were not allowed to use the "white" toilette facilities in the home. From the vantage point of 50 years in the future, you find yourself forcefully pulled into the story and cheering for each little step forward towards basic human understanding. This understanding is eloquently stated by Skeeter as she reflects on her friendship with the maid, Aibileen, near the end of the novel, "We are just two people. Not much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought."
During the 60s I was old enough to remember the massive cultural changes that were evolving in our country. But my own experience were not very diverse. In Maryland, I lived in a white neighborhoods, my friends were white and my classrooms were filled with primarily white students. I have no recollection of parental bias with regards to race. They probably had opinions being raised by families with the typical prejudices of the time, and it was never discussed. It wasn't that the topic was avoided, it just never came up. My opinions about race were formed primarily from my experiences as an adult. And it began most strikingly with the death of my father in 1970.
My father supervised a bottling plant production floor, and some of his workers were African American day-laborers who he recruited off the streets. One man, Percy, was a permanent employee, and they struck up a friendship during the 60s. I never thought it was strange, but in hindsight, it probably was an unusual friendship. A few years after Dad died, mom mentioned to me that she had recently received a visit from Percy. In fact, she said Percy had visited her a other times since Dad's death. She had never mentioned it before and I had no reason to ask. But he apparently was checking in on mom to see "how Joe's widow was doing." Mom was grateful for the kind gesture and concern. All of Dad's other "friends" disappeared after he died. But with Percy I recognized another fact. Percy was Dad's friend in life - separate and apart from the family. Out of respect for Dad and their friendship, Percy felt the need to confirm that mom was getting back on her feet independently as a widow ... and after a few years, the visits stopped. Dad never knew about Percy's kind actions, but I knew and I never forgot.
I thought alot about Percy and my parents when I read this book. I received two gifts from them: my parents provided me with a "clean slate" - no inherited racial prejudices, and Percy demonstrated how true friendship can cross racial boundaries.
I'll leave this posting by sharing a story from the book. Besides being a maid for a white family, Ailibeen took care of Mae Mobley Leefolt, the family's two year old child. Ailibeen told Mae Mobley secret stories. Mae Mobley's favorite TV show was My Favorite Martian. One secret story went like this:
(From The Help)
"One day, a wise Martian come down to Earth to teach us people a thing or two," I say.
"Martian? How big?" ask Mae Mobley.
"Oh, he about six-two."
"What's his name?"
"Martian Luther King. He was a real nice Martian, Mister King. Looked just like us, nose, mouth, hair up his head, but sometime people looked at him funny and sometime, well, I guess sometime people was just downright mean."
I could get in a lot of trouble telling her these little stories, especially with Mister Leefolt. But Mae Mobley know these our "secret stories."
"Why Aibee? Why was they so mean to him?" she ask.
"Cause he was green."
(To my readers who are local - I own this book. Let me know if you would like to borrow it.)