The Help is set in 1962 Mississippi and centers on the story of three women. Aibileen and Minny are black maids who raise the children and maintain the homes of their privileged white employers. Skeeter, who was raised by her beloved maid Constantine, returns home after college with no marriage prospects and questions about the unexplained and sudden disappearance of Constantine.
Skeeter has dreams of becoming a writer in New York and has difficulty fitting in with her friends who have become wives and mothers. She observes and disapproves of the way her girlhood friend Hilly treats her maid. When Hilly promotes a prejudiced campaign for employers to provide separate toilet facilities for the negro help, Skeeter decides to explore the lives of the help for a magazine article. The project grows in size and soon Skeeter attempts to involve the maids in honest interviews about their lives. However, in 1962 Mississippi, the negro maids are reluctant to reveal their true experiences and risk losing their jobs -- and worse.
We asked how "the help" treated their own children. The women spent long hours tending the white children in their care, which left them little time and energy for their own families. We found their experience much the same as today's working women, particularly single mothers with demanding jobs.
The theme of lines and rules that constrict people's lives resulted in a lively discussion. All the women in the book, white and black, were expected to live within certain lines and obey certain rules. The help were as reluctant to cross the line separating the races as were their employers, although for different reasons. All the characters in the novel were forced to explore social and racial lines. Skeeter was expected to marry well and begin a family, not pursue a writing career in New York. Celia unsuccessfully attempted to cross the line into her husband's social strata while breaking the rules by seeking friendship with her negro maid. Aibileen and Minny crossed the line by anonymously revealing the truth about how their white employers treated them. The 1960s was a decade of crossing lines and rewriting the rules.
Is character formed by the period in which we grow up? This question had all of us recalling our school years in a variety of locations -- from insular small towns to large cities. All of us have been around long enough to see attitudes change dramatically over the decades. We hope for the better.
Although the female characters of the novel are wonderful, the male characters were not well fleshed out. Most of the male characters seemed to us to be stereotypes if not absent. Stuart, Skeeter's romantic interest, was more like a prop instead of a well-rounded personality. It was difficult for us to invest in their relationship.
We discussed social status and its regional significance. For those of us raised in the west, the culture of the southern states is foreign. However, we equated small town dynamics to the southern social strata illustrated in the novel.
Finally, we asked if it is truly possible to understand what it's like to be a minority if we haven't experienced it ourselves. Several of us recalled reading Black Like Me -- an eye-opening book from the 1960s. The author, a white man, disguised himself as black and documented the differences in the way others treated him based on his apparent race. We all contributed instances we had observed and agreed there was no way we could fully understand the nuances of prejudice experienced by racial and ethnic minorities.
We agreed to take turns recommending books for the group and it was my turn next. I suggested The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss. Set in northeastern Oregon during World War I, the story is about a young woman who gentles horses for ranch use. It was already on my bookshelf to be read and available at the library. I thought it timely, since the Pendleton Round Up is presently celebrating its 100th year. Let 'er buck!