It isn’t often that I reach the end of a book and want to read it again. I had seen this book in the bookstore for so long and never wanted to read about the perpetuation of segregation in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. Yet, the preview of the movie adaptation of this book inspired me to pick it up, and I am so glad I did!
We are quickly introduced to a group of young white women, Skeeter, Hilly, and Elizabeth, who have been friends since childhood, and two African-American women, Aibileen and Minnie who work as the women’s “help.” The book is told from the perspective of Aibileen, Minnie, and Skeeter, who just graduated from college and is attempting to figure out what to do with her life. As a woman, it is very difficult for her to obtain employment as anything other than a secretary, and her mother wants her only to be married and have a family.
Skeeter is provided a unique opportunity to write and submit a book that a publishing company might publish. Determined to address the racial injustices around her, Skeeter enlists the help of Aibileen and Minnie to publish a collection of stories from them and other women about their experience as “the help.” At times, the women’s involvement with the book threatens their livelihood and their lives. But they are determined to continue.
The racial tension in the town is described early on. A discussion among Skeeter’s friends describes their fear of catching diseases from African-Americans by using the same toilet seat. To remedy this fear, Hilly, a domineering woman who fully supports segregation, suggests that her friend Elizabeth build a bathroom in her garage just for the help. When Elizabeth builds the toilet, Aibileen is forced to show her approval for it, though the author does an excellent job of portraying the utter humiliation she feels. Later in the book, I was shocked with the story of an African-American man who is beaten blind because he used a bathroom for whites only, even though there wasn’t a sign that the toilet was segregated.
The author does an excellent job of crafting voices for the women that are individual to them. While the book tackles a very serious subject, the story is full of humor and warmth that leaps off the pages. We also see how Aibileen does small things to teach the young girl she takes care of that all people are equal regardless of the color of their skin. Hilly is an antagonist we love to hate and in the end, she will get exactly what she deserves!
At times the plot was a bit predictable. Take for example, the relationship between Skeeter and her boyfriend. We know his political father supports segregation and that Skeeter’s book and opinions will not be tolerated by her boyfriend. Skeeter is also shunned from her organizations and loses her friends because her stance on desegregation is not understood. A funny part in the book is when Skeeter reluctantly includes Hilly’s add for building toilets for the help in a monthly women’s group newletter, and to show her opposition to the idea, she tells everyone to drop off any unwanted toilets on Hilly’s front lawn. As you can imagine, Hilly is furious when there are dozens of old toilets in her yard!
The process of writing the book and its ultimate publication has a deep and lasting effect on everyone involved with the project. The stories in Skeeter’s book show how the women are not even paid minimum wage and are often mistreated. But there are other stories that show that the friendships forged between the white women and their help which were genuine and cherished. The publication of the book forces the white women to examine their help and themselves. Skeeter’s generosity is displayed when she shares the compensation she receives for the book evenly with everyone who gave her a story for it. Ultimately, Skeeter is more self-assured, leaves for New York, single, and ready to take on the world. Aibileen takes over a column in the newspaper answering domestic questions, and Minnie finds the strength to leave an abusive husband.
I would recommend this book to every woman I know. I don’t think men would be as excited about the book’s content, but anyone who enjoys historical fiction, a determined protagonist who challenges social norms, and humor in unlikely places will enjoy this book!