Each year the Deschutes County Public Library picks a novel and encourages the whole community to read it. This year’s “A Novel Idea” is The Help. This novel is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s and focuses on the lives of black maids in white households.
This was a very interesting novel to read. It was not a tradition to have maids where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and so this is a window into a whole different life where a woman invites another woman into her house to clean it and to raise her children. Added to the mix is that the maids were always black and that segregation was in full force during this time period. One of the maids in the story, Aibileen, has to listen to a discussion about building a separate bathroom for her in the garage so that she won’t “contaminate” the inside bathrooms.
The main plot is that a white woman, Skeeter, has returned home and is hoping to break into journalism. She sees how Aibileen is treated at her friend’s house and comes up with the idea of writing the stories of black maids. Aibileen agrees to do it and after much coercing and some traumatic events finds other maids that are also willing to talk with Skeeter. During this time period Medgar Evers is shot in Jackson and the author brings that into the story. It highlights the danger these maids are exposing themselves to by simply telling their stories, even anonymously.
It did take me some time to get into the dialect used in parts of the story. The story is told by alternating from the points of view of Skeeter, Aibileen, and another maid Minny. I also found it hard to believe the characterization of some of the white women in the story. For example, Skeeter’s friend, Elizabeth, seems to really dislike her own child. It is an interesting look into the everyday lives of people who were not actively engaged in the civil rights movement, yet were impacted by it, either by trying to keep the old ways of segregation or by trying to live in a different, and at that time, unacceptable way.
In looking at the events the library will be putting on around this book, it is great to see there will be some discussions about segregation and civil rights leaders as well as demonstrations of Southern cooking. I’m hoping they’ll add some events for kids.
Escape to Books