Whether you grew up as an anxious teenager or whether you luckily only discovered stress by starting university, you may have found that a good way to ease your stress was through escapism. Breathing calmly, doing yoga or entering an infinite loop of reassurance, although valid techniques, cannot compete with the relaxation provided by a good book or TV series of questionable quality. Indeed, momentarily escaping your mental sphere by allowing yourself to focus on Friends or The Office could, at least for a moment, help you forget about your source of stress. Such an object would of course have to be as captivating as Michael Scott’s hairline to retain our attention, which I believe is The Help’s case.
Kathryn Stockett published The Help in 2009, which tells the story of two African American maids and a white university student. Aibeleen lives alone and works for a modest white family. She takes care of their neglected two-year-old daughter as though it was her own, since she lost her only child in an accident many years ago. Minnie, who is sometimes too insolent, gets fired from her previous position, and starts working for a mysterious new couple in town. Skeeter, a freshly graduated student and aspiring writer, disagrees silently with the racist system in place while she investigates the sudden disappearance of her former maid Constantine.
From the very first sentence, the use of the first-person directly immerses us into a universe at the frontiers of fiction and reality
Following a series of misadventures, Aibeleen and Minnie accept Skeeter’s dangerous proposition to secretly write a book about the conditions of African American maids. The rest of the book covers how they end up collecting the other maids’ testimonies and eventually publishing said book, alongside with various other storylines.
The book takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, in the beginning of the 1960s, a period of major change in the country. A hundred years earlier, slavery was being ruled unconstitutional by the thirteenth amendment to the constitution, which was seen at first as major progress. Yet, the abolition of slavery only gave birth to a new system of oppression of African-Americans: institutionalised racism through the passing of Segregation laws, commonly called Jim Crow laws. From the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th, many segregationist laws were adopted, and especially in southern states. The Help takes place as these laws are still very much in place, but starting to be criticised across the country as the Civil Rights Movement is taking its first steps. It makes an obvious critique of institutionalised racism and the treatment of African Americans in the US at the time.
From the very first sentence, the use of the first-person directly immerses us into a universe at the frontiers of fiction and reality. Kathryn Stockett writes characters which are incredibly beautiful in their sincerity and simplicity. They might have complicated backstories, but their nature is rendered very true and realistic through the moving story of their lives. But beyond touching us, The Help manages to captivate and infuriate us with themes such as racism, love, death, regret, servitude, injustice, motherhood, abandonment, and poverty.
I think readers have such a strong reaction to the book because you don’t just read The Help’s story: you live it
The Help will make you mad, it will make you smile, laugh and cry. It will choke you, make you feel the unfairness as if you were living it yourself. The characters stir up a lot of different emotions too – I found myself repulsed by some, while others made me cry in sadness and pity for them. Some are really relatable as well. I think readers have such a strong reaction to the book because you don’t just read The Help’s story: you live it. But eventually, this intense rollercoaster of emotions will have been completely worth it. Once I finished the book, I found myself feeling very emotional and puzzled, prompted by philosophical thoughts the novel stirred up. School-related stress will seem quite insignificant when compared to the issues raised by The Help.
I would therefore recommend seeking The Help’s help, not only to escape our present pragmatic stress, but also to awaken in us a thirst for social justice that most of us probably didn’t even realise we had. Perhaps all it needed to surface was a little Help.