Summary: The year is 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi. The book begins with Aibileen, a black maid who must endure racial disrespect from her employer and her employer’s friends. Aibileen tells her story in first person and begins with her care for a little girl who is selfishly ignored by her mother, Aibileen’s employer. Aibileen also shares the tension she experiences when her employer’s racist friends don’t want to use the same bathroom as the “colored” maid. They convince their friend, Aibileen’s employer, to build a small wooden bathroom in the garage for the maid to use. Aibileen never expresses her opinions or feelings to these ladies and submits to saying thank-you for the bathroom when pressed. She knows it’s not safe for her to express her anger or make any mistakes. One young black man who has befriended Aibileen merely makes a mistake and suffers a terrible consequence.
The second part of the book has her friend Minnie, also a maid, as the first person narrator to further the story. Minnie can’t control her anger at the way she is treated with contempt by the white people in her life. Minnie ‘talks back’ and when one of her mean-spirited employers takes offence, she accuses Minnie, unfairly, of stealing and fires her. As a result, Minnie takes an ‘unspeakable’ revenge. And she has a very difficult time finding another employer.
But the tables are about to turn because the third and final narrator is a young white woman who sees the treatment of the black maids as unjust. She wants to interview them for a book that will reveal the facts, and she has the ear of a New York editor who thinks this idea will make a perfect book for them to publish.
My Review: I was immediately drawn into Aibileen’s story. In many cases, she was the only voice of reason, and there was something very likable about her. But the fact is, I would have enjoyed the book more if she had remained the narrator for the entire book. I don’t find the ‘voice’ or the stories of the other two characters as vibrant. I wonder if the author felt more affection for Aibileen too.
On Amazon.com there are 2,706 reviews of this book so far—an astounding 2,160 people gave it 5 out of 5 stars and only 94 people gave it one star. The contrasting viewpoints of the reviewers were whether or not the characters’ dialect was representative of the story’s setting, whether the events were true to life and whether the characters seemed real or were cardboard stereotypes.
As to the debate about the authenticity of the dialect, I am not personally familiar with the southern black dialect of the 60’s so I found Aibileen’s words and way of speaking different from my only sources of information—tv and the movies. However, the plot seemed realistic and the characters seemed to be genuinely motivated.
Five-star or one-star book? You decide. If you like a detailed, thought-provoking, character and relationship driven, slower-paced novel with a message, then, this one is definitely your cup of tea.
About the Author: This is Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel. She was raised by a black maid, Demetrie, in Mississippi and says she wanted to write the book because she has spent years wishing she had asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi , working for a white family.
As a side note, I highly recommend a movie from the early 90s that starred Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek called The Long Walk Home. It has a similar theme of a black maid in a white household. The story takes place in Montgomery , Alabama during the mid 1950s, the time of Rosa Park’s arrest, the bus boycott, bombing of Dr. King’s house and the beginning of the civil rights movement. I cheered for the black lady who stood up quietly, yet proudly, for her civil rights and also for the honorable white lady whose response to injustice was defiance.