The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The lives of three women - two coloured maids and a white woman collide in nineteen-sixties Mississippi. Brilliant characters, excellent plot and highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141039282

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A Times Educational Supplement Teachers' Top 100 Book

Jackson, Mississippi: 1960. The talk at the bridge club and the tennis club is of what Jackie Kennedy is wearing. They're white women, of course and they're free to play because a coloured woman will be looking after the children, doing the shopping and cleaning the house. They're trusted to bring the children up, but they're not trusted to be honest about the silver. Aibileen is raising her seventeenth white child but something hardened in her heart when her son died whilst the white bosses looked the other way. They took his body to the coloureds' hospital and rolled it off the back of the truck and left.

Minny is the best cook in Jackson, but she has a mouth on her and it will never stop her getting into trouble. She's working for a family where there's just too much work to do for any of the other maids to take it on, but Minny can't afford to be picky if she's to avoid her husband's fists. That's the coloureds though – and no one is worried so long as they know their place.

And all might have remained as it was had not Skeeter Phelan come into their lives. Skeeter (it's Eugenia, actually, but Skeeter is more her) has just graduated from University and her first thoughts as she returns home are for her beloved maid, but Constantine has been sacked and no one will tell her why. It's not something which worries her mother, who's not particularly impressed by Skeeter's academic qualifications either. So far as she's concerned what Skeeter needs is a ring on her finger, a husband, at almost any price.

But Skeeter needs to know what has happened to Constantine and an unlikely friendship grows between Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. In the process she discovers how little friendship means in the white community when you're prepared to cross boundaries.

I was reluctant to open this book. I thought it would be dry, worthy, something I ought to read, but probably wouldn't enjoy all that much. How wrong I was. To begin with I was completely hooked by the coloured maids who selflessly brought up white children, gave them love and generally received it in return. But when the children became adults their views changed and they conformed to the ways of Mississippi.

Then I discovered that I laughed and I cried; that the perfectly-paced plot just carried me along. I felt fury at the way the coloured people were treated, anger at their lack of redress and exultation when anything went their way. I saw life from the white point of view; saw how there was a pecking order even amongst the privileged. There's suspense too – towards the end of the book I had to remind myself to breathe.

The story is told by the three women, but every character in the book comes off the page fully formed. You wonder how Skeeter's mother could possibly have produced such a child. You smile at the white women who do try to do their best by the people who work for them, but who wouldn't dare broadcast the fact. And you want to hiss at the villain of the piece!

I know it's a cliché to speak of the 'book of the year' – particularly in February – but I really do wonder if I'll find anything better. It's well written, it's a gripping story and it leaves you thinking.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

The Help is set against what was happening in the USA at the time. If you'd like to read more of the historical background we can recommend Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot. For more about life in Mississippi (although at an earlier time) try Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor. We've also enjoyed a history of the blues from its origins in the Delta region of Mississippi in Delta Blues by Ted Gioia. We'd like to recommend you some fiction but, frankly, there's nothing to compare with The Help although from Singapore, we have The Maid's Room by Fiona Mitchell.

Booklists.jpg The Help by Kathryn Stockett is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.

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