Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
Here is an illustrative tale of what it was like to be a black maid during the civil rights movement of the 1960s in racially conflicted Mississippi. There is such deep history in the black/white relationship and this story beautifully shows the complex spectrum, not only the hate, abuse, mistrust, but the love, attachment, dependence.Stockett includes this quote by Howell Raines in her personal except at the end of the novel: There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism. An eloquent way to describe Stockett’s intentions for this novel. I know most reviews will probably focus on the racial relationships in the book, but to me the most haunting statement was that when you are paying someone to care for you and their livelihood depends on making you happy, you can’t expect an honest relationship.I did not expect this book to hit so close to home. After all, I did not grow up in the South and completely missed the racial mind shift in the country. But the book isn’t just about racism and civil rights. It’s about the employer relationship too. And I did grow up in South America with a maid trying to keep herself out of poverty by making our crazy family happy. As much as we loved her, I can see so many of the pitfalls from these complex relationships in my own history. I know our maid was stuck between pleasing my mother and raising us the way she believed appropriate. I know it was physically hard to work from sunup to late everyday and emotionally hard to never relax because she wasn’t the decision maker of our home and at any moment she could be reprimanded for making the wrong decision. She had absolutely no power, and yet she was all powerful to shape and mold us.
I needed her, felt bad for how much I imposed upon her, but I never voiced how much I appreciated or loved her. I took her for granted. Even though she was paid to love us, I know she did. We were her children, especially my youngest brothers. And yet when she moved back home, we lost contact. Was it out of laziness of our own narcissistic lives or was the complexity of our relationship so draining she cut the tie? It is my fear that she thinks we did not return her affection and only thought of her as the maid. I often think about her, we all reminisce about her wondering where she is, and more than anything, I just want to know that she is happy and tell her thank you. It is so strange that someone who is such a vital part of your childhood can just vanish out of your life. “They say its like true love, good help. You only get one in a lifetime.” I know. Believe me, I know.
The story is strong and real and touched something deep inside me. I could so relate to the motherly love from Constantine to Skeeter, see that pain in the triangle between Aibileen and Mae Mobley and Elizabeth, feel the exasperation of Minny toward Celia, and understand the complexity of the good and bad, the love and hate, the fear and security. Stockett captured all these emotions.
I also loved the writing style. When style compliments plot, I get giddy. I don’t always love grammatically incorrect prose or books about an author trying to be published, but here it works because it’s honest. The novel is about a white woman secretly compiling true accounts of black maids–and the novel is in essence a white author trying to understand black maids. The styles parallel each other as do the messages. The point of Skeeter’s novel is to make people see that people are just people no matter the color of their skin and Stockett’s novel beautifully portrays that with both good and bad on both sides. The fictional novel cover is decorated with the white dove of love and understanding. To get us there, Stockett gives us three ordinary birds, a picture of ordinary life asking to be accepted for its honest simplicity.
This book is Stockett’s masterpiece, that story in her that was just itching to get out. From the first page, the voice of the characters took vivid form and became real, breathing people. I loved Aibileen, but think I loved Minny’s voice more because she is such a strong character. Besides the maids, I loved Hilly as a portrayal of the white Southern belle with the ingrained belief that black people are not as good as whites, verbalized as “separate but equal” so it doesn’t sound racist. My favorite scene was when Hilly says they have to be careful of racists because they are out there. She’s a bit over the top, but if you’ve been to the South, not that far of a stretch. I just would have liked to find some redeeming qualities in her from Skeeter’s perspective.
While there are some instances where I felt Stockett was squeezing historical facts into the novel, forming the plot around these events instead of letting them play backdrop, and occasionally I could read the modern woman in this tale pushing her message too hard, Stockett’s sincerity to understand and appreciate shines through. She lived this book to some extent and the story is a part of her. Because it’s important to her it becomes important to me.
-Ana @ SoManyBooksSoLittleTime