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The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

Set in the late 1960s, "THE HELP is fiction, by and large," says Kathryn Stockett. Her characters are authentic and alive, and Jackson, Mississipi, is undeniably Jackson, Mississipi, as ever was.

The story is about the relationship between white people in the deep South of the USA and their African-American servants. It is a difficult subject, particularly for a writer born and bred in the South, and Stockett is honest about a situation that was founded on dishonesty. She writes with compassion, but without sentimentality, about what has always been the tragic plight of a people whose ancestors were brought as slaves to America, and who were denied good education and every chance to improve their lot until the 1960s, when Martin Luther King, JFK and Rosa Park made a stand against discrimination and injustice.

Stockett will have incurred the greatest displeasure in many a white Southern breast for writing almost all her book from a black viewpoint. But only a writer cared for by black maids could have written this book. Only a child's ears are privy to the constant dialogue between servants in any community, and in Stockett's case she spent longer than usual in the company of black servants who loved her. The wonderful dialogue in THE HELP rings true as a bell, and despite the sadness and humiliation and downright fear felt by the black maids, it is, at times, the funniest I have ever read.

Stockett's main character, Aibileen, means more to the children she cares for than their own mothers. But a fatal accident to her own only child, and the indifference of the white people there at the time, embitters her, even against her will and her strong Christian faith. But still she sees black and white people as pieces on a chess board. To her, people have different positions in life, most people work for somebody else anyway, and most relationships are largely symbiotic.

In contrast to to Aibileen, her best friend, Minny, has absolutely no illusions. She cooks for white people in order to feed her own family. She bad-mouths and infuriates her employers, kowtows to nobody, speaks her mind and frequently gets the sack.

Skeeter, a 23 year old white girl with a degree from Alabama University, wants a career in journalism, especially in New York, but has to cut her teeth on the women's page of the Jackson local paper before she will be seriously considered for a job on any National newspaper. But white girls in Jackson, Mississipi are required to marry, help their husbands to climb the social ladder, get their hair done, go shopping, and know who's who, and even more importantly, know who is not who at all. In fact, the only reason they were sent to University in the first place was in order to meet the "right" men.

I listened to this book on Radio 4, and thought it lost greatly in translation to the air, although it was very well done. It is so beautifully written and so true to life that it reminds us dramatically of a very old problem: that racism, nasty as it is in any form, is still very much alive.

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