Stockett, K. (2009). The Help. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Genre: Racism, Real Fiction, Crossover, Historical Fiction
Reading level/ interest age: 17+
Skeeter is the daughter of a wealthy, white family who own a large cotton plantation. She comes home from college and announces to her parents that she wants to be a writer. The reaction is not what Skeeter expected. Women are supposed to become housewives in her town and as Skeeter is already considered to be a bit old for marriage, her parents are desperate to find her a match. Which means that Skeeter needs to tone down her rebellious side and fit in or else she will keep scaring the boys away.
Instead of heeding her parent’s advice, Skeeter dreams up the perfect story to write that will get her hired at a company in New York. However, when Skeeter begins to interview for her story, she is quickly turned away. In a town ruled by segregation, even speaking to African Americans can get people into trouble. What will everyone say once they find out that Skeeter actually intends to write about the African American help?
Skeeter has lived a very privileged life up until she comes out to her family that she wants to be a journalist. To make things worse, her life could be in danger when Skeeter starts to write a novel about the lives of African American women in her town. Is making their story public worth all the trouble?
Information about the author:
“I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1969, in a time and place where no one was saying, ‘Look how far we’ve come,’ because we hadn’t come very far, to say the least. Although Jackson’s population was half white and half black, I didn’t have a single black friend or a black neighbor or even a black person in my school. Evenin the 1970s we were staunchly separated. Yet one of the closest people to me was Demetrie, our family’s black housekeeper.
“Demetrie came to wait on my grandmother in 1955 and stayed for 32 years. It was common, in Mississippi, to have a black domestic cleaning the kitchen, cooking the meals, looking after the white children. And growing up, I adored Demetrie as much as my own mother. In some ways, she was better than our mother, who was always busy (I am one of five). Demetrie played games with us all day and never got cross. She knew to rock us on our stomachs when we ached. She knew she needed to go to the doctor with me every time I had an injection. None of us would sit still for an injection without Demetrie there.
“But her role was more complicated than that of a maid. Demetrie understood, to the letter, what she was and was not allowed to do as a black person working for a white family in Mississippi. Rule number one: she wore a white uniform to work, every day. That white uniform was her ‘pass’ to get into white places with us – the grocery store, the state fair, the movies. Even though this was the 70s and the segregation laws had changed, the ‘rules’ had not” (Stockett, 2009).
Curriculum ties: N/A
1. What are your thoughts on segregation and racism?
2. How do you think African Americans remained strong throughout all of the oppression they experienced?
The Help is an amazing work of historical fiction that chronicles the lives of African American maids living in the segregated South. The female characters of the book are all strong women who fight against oppression and traditional roles society forces upon them. Skeeter, the main character, fights against her parent’s wishes to be a housewife and the maids fight against their abusive husbands and cruel bosses.
The setting is a town made up of powerful white families within a very tight nit society. The housewives run their homes in a close resemblance of mob bosses and do not tolerate anything that may tarnish their reputation. Far from being the strong women they appear, their African American help are the ones who actually keep the household together. I almost cried at the line that mentions that these strong, amazing role models bring up white children as if they were their own only to have the same white children turn around and treat them poorly. One maid in particular is cast out permanently as a martyr and I got the feeling that the author was trying to say that change does not happen with the most outspoken person, it happens slowly over time and people must remain strong and patient throughout.
None of the characters end up breaking free of either their racial or gender roles. Skeeter gets the closest with her job as a columnist but her relationship with Stuart is everything her parents wanted it to be before he breaks up with her. One maid gets rid of her abusive husband but the damage is already done. Another maid is fired from her job and cast out of town. The more the women fight back, the higher the price they pay. Though the book has a hopeful ending, none of the characters end up getting what they wanted out of life.
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I believe that it is important to expose as many people as possible to racism in a historical context to show how far this country has come and how far it still needs to go to develop. This is a great book for possible classroom discussions and a good crossover from teens to adult fiction.
Stockett, K. (2009). This Life: Kathryn Stockett on her childhood in the Deep South. Retrieved August 29,
2014 from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1199603/This-Life-Kathryn-Stockett-childhood-Deep-South.html