The year is 1962 and the place is Jackson, Mississippi. A time when racism was like a wildfire burning raging and consuming everything. A time when coloured women cleaned, cooked, and looked after babies in white households; but were not trusted with the silverware.
A time when friendship between blacks and whites was unthinkable, Three women: Aibileen, Minny, and white Miss Skeeter , came together for a clandestine project that changed not only their lives; but the lives of everyone around them.
Drinking iced tea for the first time on a scorching hot day. This is how I would describe the effect of the book on me: New, cooling, and refreshing.
The book touches your heart. You feel Aibileen’s love, Minny’s desperation, and Skeeter’s frustration.
Aibileen Clark is a 53 year-old coloured maid who works in Miss Leefolt’s house. She is also the nanny to Mae Mobley(Miss Leefolt’s one year old daughter).
Her bond with Mae Mobley is painfully adorable. Mae Mobley dotes on Aibileen as she is always with her listening and talking, when her own mother sits in front of the sewing machine stitching fashionable dresses that she cant afford to buy from Maison and Blanche. Mrs. Leefolt constantly ignores her child, and doesn’t spare any time for her even if she is crying her heart out.
“Miss Leefolt, she dress up nice everyday. Always got her makeup on, got a car port, double-door frigidaire with the built in icebox. You see her in the Jitney 14 grocery , you never think she go and leave her baby crying in her crib”
Whenever Miss Leefolt scolds her child for kicking up a fuss, Aibileen tells Mae Mobley :
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
She does not want her “Baby Girl” to think “that colored folks ain’t as good as whites”. So she tells her stories, one of her stories goes:
“Once upon a time they was two girls,” I say(Aibileen). “one girl had black skin, one girl had white.”
Mae Mobley look up at me. She listening.
“Little colored girl say to little white girl, ‘How come your skin be so pale?’ White girl say, ‘I don’t know. How come your skin be so black? What you think that mean?’
“But neither one a them little girls knew. So little white girl say, ‘Well, let’s see. You got hair, I got hair.'”I gives Mae Mobley a little tousle on her head.
“Little colored girl say ‘I got a nose, you got a nose.'”I gives her little snout a tweak. She got to reach up and do the same to me.
“Little white girl say, ‘I got toes, you got toes.’ And I do the little thing with her toes, but she can’t get to mine cause I got my white work shoes on.
“‘So we’s the same. Just a different color’, say that little colored girl. The little white girl she agreed and they was friends. The End.”
Baby Girl just look at me. Law, that was a sorry story if I ever heard one. Wasn’t even no plot to it. But Mae Mobley, she smile and say, “Tell it again.”
I really like Aibileen’s character, the parts with her and Mae are really touching. She is oldest in the secret group consisting of herself, Minny and Skeeter. Therefore, she is mature and wise.
Minny Jackson is another coloured maid. She is best friends with Aibileen. She is great at cooking and at getting herself fired. She has a record of getting herself fired 19 times. She is a typical middle-aged woman worried about feeding her family and about maintaining a job.
She is generally brash and outspoken but when her drunkard husband, Leroy, beats her she is submissive. She might shout out everything that comes to her mind, but she really cares for the people around her.
“They think big strong Minny, she sure can stand up for herself. But they don’t know what a pathetic mess I turn into when Leroy’s beating on me. I’m afraid to hit him back. I’m afraid he’ll leave me if I do. I know it makes no sense and I get so mad at myself for being so weak! How can I love a man who beats me raw? Why do I love a fool drinker? One time I asked him, Why? Why are you hitting me?” He leaned down and looked me right in the face.
“If I didn’t hit you, Minny, who knows what you become. ”
She endures her husband’s post-drinking clobbering as she does not want him to leave her and her five kids. One can’t help accepting Minny’s ambivalent nature as it is tangible. She detests white people, but later begins to care for her new boss-The ignorant, foolish Miss Celia. Minny is a very entertaining character, loud and real.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is a twenty-three year old from an upper middle class white family. She dreams of being a journalist and settling down alone in an apartment in New York. (For Skeeter New York is the city of writers). She returns home from college eager to meet Constantine, her maid, only to find another maid in the house.
She is the young, spirited girl waiting for a change. She wants to do something meaningful with her life, and she is least disturbed by the fact that her best friends are married. A wedding ring is the only way to happiness according to Skeeter’s mother.
Skeeter’s relation with Constantine is exceptional. It is something beyond a formal relation between a coloured maid and the white daughter of her boss, more like a mother-daughter relation. It is this which propels Skeeter to initiate a project that shakes up all the households in Jackson. The affair she has with Stuart does not end up on a “happily ever after” note. Thankfully, it does not come under the “love is the solution for everything” category which is rampant nowadays.
Skeeter says “But I do not know what to tell myself. Stuart needs “space” and “time,” as if this were physics and not a human relationship.”
Skeeter is absolutely dedicated to see a change that she sacrifices her comfortable, anxiety-free life for a nightmarish one. I really admire her courage and sincerity.
The reader gets the feeling that the characters are not fictional, but real characters with flesh and blood. The dialogues, and the sequence of events are extremely realistic that you feel as if a friend is narrating everything to you.
The story ends with the three protagonists starting a new life just when they thought that starting afresh was not possible. The book has everything-humour, fact, surprise,sadness, indifference, happiness, hope and change.
The essence of the book is this:
“We (Blacks and Whites) are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”
This is a spectacular book that makes you think, laugh, cry, and sigh. it is life with a cover and a blurb.