by Kathryn Stockett. Putnam 2009
My friend Carmen recommended this wonderful novel. She said she read it in two days. It took me more like four or five days, but it was the kind of book that pulls you in. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s around the time of Medgar Evers’ assassination, it alternates among three voices: Skeeter, a young white woman raised on a comfortable farm outside Jackson mostly by her family’s maid, Constantine; Aibileen, an older (maybe late 50s?) African-American maid working for an empty-headed white woman–a close friend of Skeeter’s–whose idea of having children is to see them as little as possible; and Minny, a somewhat younger African-American maid whose inability to be sufficiently subservient constantly causes her to lose jobs as a maid. Aibileen’s and Minny’s chapters are rendered in their dialect (e.g., “I’m on go there” instead of “I’m going to go there”), as Skeeter’s are rendered in hers, but as a college-educated white woman, Skeeter writes more or less standard English.
I liked all three characters. Some of the other characters in the book, such as Skeeter’s friend and Aibileen’s employer Elizabeth and the book’s villain Hilly Holbrook, another friend of theirs and president of the women’s League in Jackson, are portrayed as pure bigots. Can people really have been so cruel? I guess they were. But they are not only cruel; they are also hypocritical, because while they shudder at the thought of their maids using the same bathroom facilities as they do or grocery shopping at the same stores that serve whites, they happily eat food cooked and served by those same maids, who also shop for their employers’ groceries at the white stores, clean their houses, wash their clothes, and raise their children from infancy with all the intimate contact that that entails. It’s really hard for me to understand how white bigots could reconcile these things in their minds.
Skeeter, an aspiring journalist, persuades Aibileen, and eventually Minny, to share with her their true feelings about their white employers. In so doing, Skeeter is transformed from a kind person who does not question the rules of the society in which she was raised to one who really “gets it” and becomes willing to break those rules. But at the end, Skeeter, like the author, leaves the South entirely, while Aibileen, Minny, and the other maids in the novel have to remain behind and deal with living in a racially bigoted society. I felt the injustice of it, but also the truth. Some people get to run away, and others have to stay and deal.
It’s a really good book, though. I recommend it.