Book Review: The Help By Kathryn Stockett

Written by Kiprop Kimutai

For a book that has constantly lasted in the New York Times Bestseller list, it is quite intriguing to know that Kathryn got 45 rejection slips in her publication attempt and had to wait five years for the manuscript to finally be accepted.

The Help  is a book written without  complication or any intent towards literary flair. Its simple and straightforward language is what makes it powerful, laying bare the complex human psychology in place during the 1960s in America when racial boundaries were beginning to dissolve.

It is a book about three women-Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. Skeeter is a tall, big-boned white girl who cares little about her hair and dressing, and drives around town in a lorry. This actually frightens her mother into thinking that her daughter is a lesbian and even goes to the extent of buying her “straight-sexuality-inducing tea” to drink in the morning. The core of the story somwhat begins when Skeeter tries to pursue her writing, a dream that survives in spite of constant lectures on how to be a good housewife and on adherence to tedious social graces. She starts a column with a household magazine, offering cleanliness tips, and being no neat housekeeper herself she resorts to seek advice from Aibileen, a black maid.

Aibileen is a senior, sensitive and deeply compassionate woman, earthy and connected to her being, and her trademark black dialect infuses several chapters of the book with something rare and beautiful. It is easy to step into her environment and see what it was to be a black maid then-to have to use a separate bathroom from your employer and to eat separately as well and witness people being tortured for not doing so, to watch children being mistreated or being sorely ignored by their mothers, and have the same children, who suffer from no racial biases, call you mama.  She even describes an incident where an employer tries out a new hair dye on a black maid first to see how it works, and the maid has to walk around town in blue hair for a while. She has borne all those ridiculous societal ills with a long-suffering spirit and has never been one to rock the boat. That is until Skeeter turns to her saying that she wants to write a book on what it is like being a black maid in America and needs to interview Aibileen for it. A heroine wakes up in Aibileen, and for the first time in many years, she is challenged to speak and open up, and to confront the pain and the unfairness in it all. It is remarkable the transformation she has at the end as she e watches her old life slip by (she is fired after crossing boundaries that are not meant to be crossed), when she is ushered into a new beginning, no longer as a maid but now as a writer and nothing describes it better than her final words which are also the final words of the book; “May be I ain’t too old to start over, I think and laugh and cry at the same time at this. Cause just last night I thought I was finished with everthing new.

Then there is Minnie, sassy and in-your-face and with such good cooking that a tacky housewife actually employees her culinary skills to save her marriage. She speaks back and never holds back her tongue, and always in an angry manner, like someone who has been tortured by life to give in and slack but somehow has held on to an indefatigable spirit. In spite of her wild horse demenour, it is odd to know that she lives with an abusive husband who constantly beats her unless she is pregnant. One day she asks him why he beats her and he answers “Who knows what you would be if I did not beat you.” And she somehow reconciles with that statement, somehow, though not obviously, accepting that it makes sense, that she was meant to rot if otherwise, something about what her grandmother and mother said about her when she was young. She fights back against white lady employees who hide savage hostility behind pearly white smiles, perfectly coiffed hair and condescending gift tokens through schoolyard tactics such as mixing her poo with cake flour and serving it to one of them. she is the turning point of the story for when Aibileen approaches her on Skeeter’s book idea, she empowers other black maids to open up and speak.

It is the 1960s, the year Martin Luther King gives his “I Have A Dream Speech”, and later gets assassinated along with John F Kennedy and other key political leaders. Racial hatred spills into violence as many black activists are tortured or laid off from work. This is the tense period from which the novel is set, and it shows how three ordinary women, take a step of faith, one that changes their lives forever and in turn shows us all, that each of us, can shape the destiny of our nation, by doing “something small about something big”.

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Author: Kiprop Kimutai

Present, Kind, Loving, Centered, Connected

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