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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

It turns out that this book is actually quite controversial, which I guess I might have been able to expect. The movie has turned out to be even more controversial, which makes sense since who reads anymore? But people love to go to the movies!

There’s probably no way you haven’t heard of The Help, or at least gotten a cursory glance at the purple-and-yellow cover that screams LADY BOOK!, but you might not know what it’s about. The Help chronicles a couple of years in the lives of three women in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement: Aibileen, a black maid for a middle-class family whose love for the children under her care is only made more poignant by the recent loss of her only son; Minnie, Aibileen’s friend, also a maid, whose smart mouth loses her every job but whose cooking is the best in the county; and Skeeter, a twenty-one-year-old woman fresh out of Ol’ Miss who feels like an outsider amongst the Jackson elite despite her pedigree.

The villain of the story is the awful ingrained prejudice of the post-Civil War South as exemplified by one Hilly Holbrook, Skeeter’s childhood friend and the president of the Jackson Junior League (?? Isn’t she a little young to be president of the Junior League? But anyway). Hilly prides herself on being able to destroy lives and force people to install bathrooms for their colored help. She gets Minnie blacklisted from all Jackson homes so she can’t find a job, and she routinely bullies Skeeter and their other childhood friend, the cold, cowardly Elizabeth. Hilly is almost unbelievably the worst, which I justified in my reading of the book and viewing of the movie by accepting her role as an embodiment of a whole range of societal ills.

Skeeter, who wants to be a journalist or an editor or something wordy, gets a job at the Jackson Journal as the Miss Myrna columnist, writing about house cleaning tips. Since Skeeter, having grown up on a plantation and everything, has never cleaned in her life, she asks Aibileen, Elizabeth’s maid, for advice and a tentative friendship grows. When Skeeter gets it into her head that she wants to write a book about the experiences of black domestics, she goes to Aibileen, who discovers, after an initial hesitancy, that she has a lot to say. Aibileen draws Minnie into the project, and Minnie draws in a bunch of other maids, and suddenly they have a pot boiler brewing.

Because of the Jim Crow laws, what Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minnie are doing is technically illegal, and as racial tensions grow, their enterprise becomes more and more risky, and the publication of the book has consequences for everyone involved.

The Help is, in all ways, a coming of age novel. Skeeter’s story is the most obvious one about growing up, learning to fight, getting your heart broken, and becoming a person of value in the world. But Aibileen comes of age, too, as does Minnie, as does Jackson, MS.

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