This is a story, set in the early 1960s, and told in the first person but from the point of view of three people. We first hear from Aibileen who is a maid in the town of Jackson, Mississippi. Her employer is Miss Elizabeth a woman who does not appear to like her small daughter very much, primarily it seems because the child is not pretty. Aibileen, as with most maids, is the one tasked with actually looking after the toddler and takes it upon herself to convince the child that she is a good person and loved. Minny is next, she's about to be fired from her job looking after Miss. Walter whose daughter, Hilly Holbrook, is the most popular white woman in the town. Minny is a fantastic cook but can't keep her opinions to herself. Hilly wants to put her mother in a home and engineers a way to do this and fire Minny into the bargain. Minny exacts revenge but we're not told exactly what she does until close to the end of the book.
A regular bridge session is held once a week at Miss Elizabeth's house. And this is where we meet Skeeter, who is Eugenia, daughter of a white farmer and his wife, a well-to-do family in the town. But she is different. Alone in the kitchen with Aibileen, almost thinking outloud, she asks if Aibileen ever wished 'things were different'. And it's on this question that the whole book hinges, because Skeeter wants to be a writer, and, crucially she is not at all colour prejudiced. The woman who brought her up, the black maid, Constantine, disappeared under mysterious circumstances while Skeeter was finishing university. Told the woman moved to Chicago to be with her son, Skeeter is traumatised that the woman she thought of as her mother left without saying goodbye.
Aibileen lost a grown-up son a couple of years ago. Treelore had wanted to write too and had the idea of writing a book telling the world about the lives of black people in Mississippi. But he had died before he could start. Skeeter finds out about the idea and decides, with Aibileen's help, to write the book herself. She had applied for an editing job in New York, previously, didn't get it, but the woman running the publishing house advised her to get a job with the local paper, and *write*. Anything. Skeeter tells her what she has in mind and the woman suggests she get the testimonies of about a dozen maids in Jackson. Skeeter accepts the challenge, but how to get a dozen very scared maids to talk to her about their daily lives? Their jobs would be on the line after all.
Amidst all this we have the various conivings of Hilly Holbrook to keep the town under her thumb. She's number one wife in the town and plans to keep it that way, treading on whoever she has to tread on in the process. Not just the lives of all the maids in the town are threatened by this woman, Skeeter too is in danger. If Hilly ever found out that Skeeter is about to embark on a project that she would consider a betrayal of everything southern white women stoood for, there's no telling what she would do...
I think this was one of the most involving, absorbing books I've ever read. I think it could easily be my book of the year this year. I rarely don't want a book to finish... it's so rare it's almost unknown but I was quite bereft when this finished. I just wanted *more*. I'm not saying the book was wanting in any way, just that I loved these three women so much I wanted to carry on hearing about their lives.
The time period here is crucial as things were starting to change in The South. It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King. Kennedy was assassinated and so on. Bob Dylan's song, The Times They are a Changing gets a mention in the book and it couldn't be more appropriate, as they were. Against this background we hear of the day to day daily grind of black women in Mississippi. Not just their poverty but the way their white employers treated them. Segregation was of course the norm, but all kinds of petty, horrible little prejudices come to fore, the like of which, to my 21st. century sensibilities, sound appalling. The question of where black maids go to the toilet is a central theme in the book for instance. The whites don't want them to use their bathrooms for fear of catching some nameless 'disease'. Same with cutlery and crockery. The list is endless and, to tell the truth, brings a lump to your throat thinking about it all.
The thing about the book is that it's never preachy. The women here tell their story simply and with extreme honesty. But the fear in it is tangible. The maids fear for their jobs and for their families should they be fired. They fear retribution from the KKK if they or their husbands step over the invisible line. Skeeter should feel more safe but she doesn't. She's constantly on the receiving end of endless criticism from her mother because she's tall and 'not pretty' and can't get a boyfriend. Most of all she fears what will happen if her friends find out about 'the book'.
I could go on and on and on about this book. I loved it but at the same time was horrified by it. It made me feel that everyone should read it. It should be part of the English syllabus in our schools. The book I read is a library book but I need to get my own as I know I'll want to read it again. I hope Kathryn Stockett is writing something else. I wish it were more about Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter but assume it wouldn't be. Now I need to see the film to see how that compares. Read this book!!!
Oh and a Happy Easter to all who read and visit this blog. :-)