Monday, December 22, 2014

The Help

Jackson, Mississippi in the 1962 might not be your dream town to live, especially with the thick atmosphere of racial segregation. Kathryn Stockett tried to tell us this history through the view point of some African-American maids who work in white households, and a white girl who loves challenges and journalism. Skeeter Phelan has a sweet memory of her maid Constantine—an African-American woman—who nursed her before she went to college, but then she suddenly left. In the midst of segregation issue in Jackson’s white households (to build a separate toilet for the maids), Skeeter feels uneasy. At this time a publisher offers her chance to write a book with a specific and interesting topic. Then she has an idea to write about the lives of these two different races, from the point of view of the maids.

So, for the next months, Aibeleen Clark, Minny Jackson, and a dozen other maids are in between excitement and fear, when they meet Skeeter at Aibeleen’s house at night after work, and pour down their memories—sweet and bitter (more bitter than sweet)—into the draft, which Skeeter then edits into a book. There are a lot of struggles for these women to do that. The meetings between black and white women are very dangerous, let alone their project of revealing sensitive issues during those times.

Racism is always an emotional topic to read, and the issue is always relevant. Reading The Help, I was reminded again that family has the most powerful influence on our way of thinking. Either love or hatred, towards others who are different, it has been planted into our mind by our parents, schools, and everyone around us. We are shaped by the society. In a way Mae Mobley is lucky to have an ignorant mother but an affectionate and wise maid, Aibeleen. Without Aibeleen’s lectures on love and humanity, most probably the little girl would grow up just like her mother, her teacher, and most of her surroundings.

I have once read John Grisham’s novel: The Chamber. It’s about a man, Sam Cayhall, who is sentenced to death for bombing a lawyer office and killing two little boys. Later in jail, Sam ponders over his motif to do the crime. He is a member of Ku Klux Klan, and from his childhood, his father—also a member—has taught him to hate black people, and that the whites are more superior to the blacks. In short, he was brought up to hate black people; it’s only natural for him to do the crime, as nobody taught him any other way. This is only an example of how difficult racialism is to be eradicated, no matter how modern our society is. Morality and religion sometimes only keep us from doing harsh things to others, but deep inside there are still those prejudices and suspicions.

My sympathy goes to Celia Foote. Under her vanity and silliness, she is a kind-hearted woman; the only woman in Jackson, perhaps, who treats her maid equally. Johnny Foote is so lucky to have her as a wife (and he is damned right for dumping Hilly!), although she often humiliates herself. I was touched to read how Johnny and Celia treat Minny as if she is family member. Celia and Minny are two women with their own problems (one with no child, the other with too many), and they should respect each other as friends as well as mistress and maid. If only we can all do that….

The Help is a very enjoyable reading, and I liked how Stockett wrote it in three voices: Skeeter’s, Aibileen’s, and Minny’s; each with her own strong personality. Four stars for The Help and Kathryn Stockett.


I read Indonesian translation from Matahati Publishing

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