Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, who is fresh out of college and back at her parents home where she discovers that their maid of twenty-some years, Constantine, has up and left without informing her, to go live with her daughter in Chicago. Skeeter knows there’s more to the story, but no one seems to want to reveal the truth to her. Skeeter’s dream is to become a writer, a serious journalist even. So she applies for a job at the local paper, and ends up writing generic responses to a variety of household questions. Through a series of events, brave and tenacious Skeeter dreams up an idea that challenges everything the people of Jackson believed in, but one that could put so many people in actual danger.
Aibileen Clark is an older black woman who works at Elizabeth Leefolt’s household. Aibileen has spent her life raising other people’s children, while still mourning her son’s death, Treelore. Aibileen has no respect for those white ladies, who are so disconnected from their children. She is strong and very capable, but she knows her place. However, since her son’s death, she’s had this bitterness grow inside of her and when Skeeter approaches her with the proposition, she knows this is her shot at telling the ‘truth’.
Minny, on the other hand, is not one to keep her mouth shut, and has been fired from more jobs than she can count. She worked at Hilly Holbrook’s household, until Hilly put her mother in an elderly home and Minny refused to work for her anymore. To get back at her, Hilly spread a rumour that Minny stole some silver from her home making her unemployable at any other household. In revenge, Minny does the ‘Terrible Awful’ thing. However, Minny isn’t the only one who has a problem with Hilly. Hilly is a character meant to represent the extreme racism of that time (and perhaps less often in this time).
This novel affected me in many ways I did not know possible. I do not feel this touched by a novel except on very rare occasions. Kathryn Stockett created this fictional novel full of fictional characters based on a non-fiction reality. She paints a bright and vivid image of what life was like at that time in a city like Jackson, Mississippi that was on the cusp of civil rights and so many changes. A small Southern town that is caught up in all of the controversy and the heat that go with it. She made every character so real down to the little details of how they talk, allowing us to hear them speak to us while we read their story.
To me, Aibileen was the closest character to my heart. Especially in all the scenes that have her raising little Mae Mobley. The idea of having these women raise white child after white child, form attachments and grow to love them, only for those white children to grow up to be just like their parents, destroyed me. It devastated me. And yet Aibileen was still ready to move on and embrace another child and do her best to try and instill the right beliefs in them. The ending with Aibileen and Mae Mobley made me cry in heaving sobs of despair at the unfairness of our community, of society, of all these ridiculous norms and rules we live by.
I loved that this novel was realistic. That it wasn’t sugarcoated with happy endings or some huge transformation. In fact, it made me reflect on how we treat the help now, and how different is it really? There’s still so much wrong with our societies. In the Middle Eastern societies we have labourers, who are not treated any better than the black people were in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Middle Eastern families still hire live-in help that stay with them for years and raise their children.
At the university I went to, we had what we called Cleanco. An organisation of cleaners, who cleaned every room and toilet on campus, including the dormitories. These Cleanco had no name. I don’t remember anyone calling them by their individual names, but were rather identified as a flock. “Cleanco came to clean my room today”, “I don’t know where Cleanco put the notebook I left on the floor by my bed”, “Cleanco, I need help with my luggage”.
And what about those men hired to pick up our rubbish everyday? To watch an old man picking up our garbage everyday, in the scorching sun, wearing thick gloves and overalls meant to protect against the smell and heat, brings tears to my eyes. While we all sit there in our air-conditioned cars, listening to music, avoiding eye contact, and pretending they don’t exist. We avoid them like the plague. He’s a garbageman after all, correct? We’re better than that. Whereas, when we sit fifteen minutes out in the sun we immediately start to complain about the heat, and take for granted the air-conditioning we are provided very freely in our offices. For shame.
Bottom line is, I live in a caste-based society, where labourers of certain nationalities are paid the bare minimum to work in some of the most horrific, and at times, demeaning circumstances. Watching how those people are exploited, and how their rights are being breached makes me feel like we haven’t really left the 1960’s.
This makes me hurt inside. To know how far we have come, but to realise that there is still so much work to be done.
This book is a must read, as it puts all of this into perspective and it makes you think of the kind of society you are living in. When you read it, try to compare between your society now, and society back then.
And I guarantee you, Aibileen’s mantra will stay with you long after the story is over: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”