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It's 1962, a time when escalating tensions are rising between African-Americans (then known as "coloreds") and their white employers and neighbors! Told from three different points of view, this story probes the intimate thoughts about what it's like for the maids of wealthy and middle class white people in Jackson, Mississippi. It's more than just hard, hard work; it's trying to survive in a constantly demeaning, life or death survival environment! That may sound trite, but trust this reviewer - these accounts are absolutely riveting, heart-stopping and poignant in ways that put new definitions on these commonly used terms!
A young woman, Miss Skeetter, wants to be a journalist while her family and friends believe that finding a husband is all that matters, no matter what one's educational background is. Her first question that opens the central plot is to ask if one of the maids, Aibleen, wishes things were different.
Aibleen never gets to complete the conversation, but she remembers the comment as she continues to care for three-year-old Mae Mobley. Aibleen, like other hired "help," is more of a mother to Mae Mobley than her own distant, punishing mother by birth. The pain Aibleen feels over this coldness is stunning when one learns the numbing background of her own deep loss. Yet through it all, Aibleen's quietly muttered thoughts and written prayers to God make the reader roar with laughter and ponder what's important in the schemes and nonsense of daily family life. It is she who provides the impetus for Miss Skeeter's project, to get a few black women to talk about the joys, sorrows, challenges and downright insanity of their service employment.
Then you'll meet Minnie, another maid who doesn't keep jobs too long because of her outspoken, funny, but offensively blunt comments to her employers. When that doesn't work, lies will do to get rid of her since she obviously doesn't know her "place" in this cold, tough world! Her challenges include a violent home life and an employer who is from the seedier side of Southern life, what used to be called "white trash." Miss Celia is lonely and constantly striving to fit in, but it's clear she doesn't have a clue about much!
The project begins on a wrong note and seems doomed to die before it gets going, but tragedy will change all that. Then the reader will be just as stunned at the gritty, fiercely determined nature that arises in a dozen women to tell their tale despite what just might be brutally lethal results. They express their fury and their hysterical barbs as well at the turn of a plan by whites to create toilets for the "diseased" help.
So many other characters and events fill these 464 wonderful pages. This reviewer hardly ever says this about any book, but this is a book you will not be able to put down and will be so, so sorry when it's over. It will change hearts and minds wherever it's experienced!
This is Kathryn Stockett's first novel, a brilliant, potent celebration of astonishing and noteworthy hope for light to surmount darkness, be it in a person's color or behavior! The Help is a wonder to behold and cherish!
Reviewed by Viviane Crystal on December 29, 2008