Author: Kathryn Stockett
New York Times Bestseller
Original Publication: 2009
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Skeeter Phelan is twenty-three with a newly minted college degree. Too tall, gawky, and frizzy-haired to have ever fit in properly as a southern belle, she returns to her parents’ home in Jackson, Mississippi after college in 1962 to find work. Her mother, of course, is annoyed that she spent four years in college and never managed to find a husband. Interested in journalism, Skeeter begins correspondence with a publisher in New York City, who advises her to take any job she can get and work her way up. Skeeter gets hired on to write the “Miss Myrna” column in her local newspaper, which is similar to Hints from Heloise. She realizes to her horror, however, that like many white children of her generation, she was raised with colored help in the house and thus knows nothing about cleaning or maintaining a household. Since Constantine, her beloved maid from childhood is gone, she asks her friend Elizabeth if she may ask her maid, Aibileen, a few questions.
As she begins to settle back into life amongst her childhood friends Elizabeth Leefolt and Hilly Holbrook, Skeeter increasingly realizes that she has little in common any more with either of them. Hilly is the social guru of Jackson and runs everyone’s lives according to her own opinions, which are, while racist and horrifying, not out of place in their community. Hilly asks Skeeter, who edits and publishes the weekly Junior League newsletter, to print a “home health initiative”, instructing the citizens of Jackson with hired help to install separate bathrooms for their colored workers, citing that blacks are notoriously diseased and that “we must protect our families.” Disgusted but afraid of the prospect of losing her job and social standing, Skeeter publishes the initiative with a purposeful typo, resulting in thirty-one toilets being dumped on Hilly’s lawn. Hilly is mortified and begins alienating Skeeter from the community.
Meanwhile, Elaine Stein, the New York City publisher, has begun mentoring Skeeter and has told her that if she wants to write, she needs to write about something that she cares about. Skeeter realizes that the times are changing and that what she’d really like to write about is what it is like being black in the south and working for white families. She enlists Aibileen to help her, and after much coaxing, Aibileen’s best friend Minny. Both women are afraid not just of losing their jobs but of being beaten, jailed, or possibly killed if they are found out telling the secrets of the families they work for to a white woman. Elaine makes it clear that she won’t consider publishing Skeeter’s book until she has the testimony of at least a dozen maids. She, Aibileen, and Minny begin working together in secret.
Without giving too much away – and there are a lot of miniature scandals, mysteries, and nuances in the book – I will say that I enjoyed it very much. Skeeter learns horrifying things about her friends and how they treat their help, and becomes more determined than ever to publish her book. This is a quick read that sucked me in immediately. Against the backdrop of the 1960’s, it was interesting to me to see how the world was changing in their attitudes toward race relations at that time, and how much the south resisted those changes. As a person who cringes at the use of the “N-Word” and the idea of racial inequality, it was strange for me to read about people who were considered respectable in their communities but practiced racism and treated their help – women who kept their households, cooked for them, cleaned for them, and essentially raised their children for them – like garbage.
Fun Fact: A film adaptation has been announced, slated for release on August 12, 2011. Emma Stone (Superbad) will play Skeeter, Viola Davis (Eat, Pray, Love; Doubt) will play Aibileen, and Octavia Spencer (Ugly Betty) will play Minny. The rest of the cast promises to be great as well.
Bother if: The book was interesting and well-written, and a fun read. I found myself rooting for Skeeter and the ladies as they struggle to reveal the truth about being colored help in the south, and it made me wish that I could be friends with them. The society ladies, although products of their time and upbringing, made me want to punch them in the face. Each character was painstakingly developed to the point that I felt like I knew them. It was both triumphant and heartbreaking, and I enjoyed it very much. One thing that is pointed out is how susceptible children are to their parents’ attitudes – the white children in the novel grow up adoring their nannies, and yet, as soon as they are old enough to understand their parents’ ridiculous notions about race, start treating these women exactly the way their parents do.
Don’t Bother if: From a sociological standpoint, I found it very interesting. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest a generation later than this time period, and racism has always felt like an antiquated idea to me. It has simply never existed for me. Before I read this, a friend of mine who lives in the south read it and found some aspects of it offensive. She mentioned resenting that the black women were written with poor grammar (although many of them in the story were working to send their children to college, could read and write, and some were educated.) She thought that writing the maids as “ignorant” in their speech was insulting, and perpetuated stereotypes. I nearly felt guilty for enjoying the story as much as I did. I have such a removed perspective from any of the events in the novel that I think I saw it in a different way. I can certainly understand why, even though I didn’t happen to feel that way, one might have seen the book in a distasteful light. The book also contains racial insensitivity (to say the least) and violence. Some readers may find this novel upsetting, although I didn’t think that it was so upsetting as to not be worth a read.