Directly after reading Go Set a Watchman, I started listening to The Help by Kathryn Stockett on audio. This was deliberate–on the surface, they’re similar books. A young woman returns to her small Southern hometown and is appalled by the racism she observes in her friends and family. But there’s a crucial difference–I liked The Help SO MUCH better!
The Help is the story of “colored” maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Three women alternate points of view chapters to tell their stories: Aibileen, a maid who deeply loves the white children she cares for; her friend Minny, whose outspokenness has made her almost unhire-able; and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a white woman in her early twenties who has just returned from college and dreams of being a writer. Skeeter starts seeing the racism in her friends and her town, and becomes inspired to write a book of interviews telling the story of the maids.
This book is so good because we get so far inside each of the major characters, learning their backgrounds, what inspired them, what led them to where (and who) they are now. Skeeter is deeply influenced by Constantine, the black maid who raised her–and by her own mother, who seems to be perpetually disappointed in her. Minny’s mother told her the rules for working for white families when she was fourteen (and Minny’s never been all that good at following them), and Aibileen’s own son died shortly before she began working for her current white family. Those are just a few snippets, as the book gives such a rich and complex picture.
Go Set a Watchman frankly tells the beginning of a story–Jean-Louise is appalled by racism, so now what? The Help keeps going, as Skeeter decides to do something. And she has to deal with the real challenges and consequences of that choice. It’s not easy for Skeeter and Aibileen to come to trust each other (and the eventual growth of their relationship is truly lovely), and Skeeter makes very real sacrifices because of her moral stance. Aibileen and Minny risk even more by choosing to tell the truth about their lives.
This is a very strong women’s book, centering primarily around relationships between women: friendships among both the black women and the white women; the love between the black maids and the children they raise (and the two major relationships of that sort are with daughters); and the deeply complicated relationships between the black maids and the white women they work for. There are a few boyfriends and husbands floating through this story and they have their roles, but mostly it’s about the women–both the heroes like Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter, and the villain, the fierce Miss Hilly Holbrook who rules society in Jackson.
Go Set a Watchman is also, comparatively, only a third of the story because of the point of view choices. It’s all Jean-Louise, with almost no presence from the black community. I love that The Help has Aibileen and Minny tell their own stories. And it shows why the racism is wrong so much more effectively than any number of philosophical speeches. Atticus argues that the black community is not ready to assume a leadership role, and without talking to anyone from that community how can you know if he’s right about that or not? Listen to Aibileen for one chapter and you know he’s dead wrong.
The Help was deeply engaging, sometimes funny, often sad, and an incredibly vivid and complex portrait of a community dealing with intense issues…which remain so relevant. Highly recommended!
Other reviews…are numerous!
Buy it here: The Help