I had some other reviews pending to be written and published, but somehow had to get this out of my chest. You know, that feeling when you have come across something really good, and you want to share it, even if it means putting everything else on hold? That.
It is 1962. A time in America where black maids are employed by rich white folk, to clean their homes, cook their food, bring up their children, but aren’t trusted with their silver. The invisible lines that were drawn between the white and black women. Lines which could prove most dangerous if crossed.
Abileen, is a maid working in the Leefolt home, bringing up the seventeenth white baby that she has been entrusted with. She is struggling with demons of her own, her only son has died, and it has taken her a while to get back into working. She adores the little girl she has been bringing up, but knows that it is more likely than not that this little girl would grow up to be just like her mother, despite the best of Aibileen’s efforts.
Minny, the best cook in Jackson, also has the sharpest tongue amongst the maids. That has resulted in her being fired from numerable jobs, and has the most vicious of white women, Hilly Holbrook gunning for her. She has been fired yet again, and this time, she is finding it very difficult to find a job. When she does, it is only because her employer is not somebody the rest of the white ladies in town interact with.
Skeeter, a white woman, just back from college, unsuccessful in the only endeavor her mother wants her to take up, finding a husband. Tall, different in looks and in her motivations from her other friends, Skeeter is lonely in her crowd. She finds some of the views that her close friends have, difficult to stomach, and realizes that she might be the only one amongst her friends who thinks this way. One of the things she wants to know is what happened to her old maid Constantine, who seems to have left her mother’s employment, under mysterious circumstances, when Skeeter was at college. Nobody seems willing to tell her what actually happened.
Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny form an unlikely alliance. Spurred by their circumstances, they start a project. They start writing about their experiences as black maids in white households. The enormity of their task, the difficulties of getting other maids to contribute and the dangers that they were courting dawns on them very soon, but after a point, there was no turning back. Even Skeeter as a white woman faces trouble of her own, but her troubles are nothing in comparison to the troubles that could befall on the maids if they were discovered.
The book is a touching portrayal of the lives of domestic help at that time. A time when they were entrusted with the upbringing of the employers children, but were still viewed with suspicion in so many ways, and yet there were households were they had sensitive and considerate employers, who would never voice out this, in the company of their peers. The racism that was an accepted part of life. Even those who did treat their maids well, accepted the lower status of their maids, without question, just because that was what they always knew. They never questioned it, because it was normal. The dynamics of society that time, the relationships, not just between the white women and their black maids, but also between themselves, inn their own society is fascinating. Politics, manouverings, class play. There are invisible lines through all classes of people, and almost everybody hankering to be in the good books of the people in power. Ultimately power play is what it all boils down. The one with most power, calls all the cards. How Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter work through it, and triumph is such a wonderful tale.
The story is an amazingly positive and hopeful story, which I think drew a lot of flak from some of the reviewers who felt it was too positive, but it is still an engrossing tale, one that moves you.
Stockett mentions her motivation behind writing this. She grew up in Mississippi, and her family had a maid, Demetrie. She speaks about how you accept the situation, the rules and regulations that bound them at that time. She goes on to say, how much Demetrie mattered to her, when she was growing up. and how much Demetrie contributed to Kathryn’s life. She goes on to say,
I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life.
the reason why she wrote the book.
I had wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question. She died when I was sixteen. I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book.
A 5/5 from me. It is a book that makes you think, and a book that stays with you. A book, I will happily re-read.
PS: I couldn’t help add, some of the dynamics that were mentioned in the book, I have to say, I have seen even with our interaction with maids in India. I have come across employers who refuse the simplest of dignities to their domestic help. While it might not be a race divide in place, there certainly is a ‘class divide’ which results in people not treating their help in the same way they would like to be treated. And again. just as in 1960 America, there is good and bad, everywhere.