I finished reading The Help this afternoon.

I’d had it on my To Be Read shelf for ages, and picked it up a few days ago after seeing a trailer for the movie version.  It’s a terrific book.  It doesn’t need another review.  Read it.

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is set in the early 1960s.  I remember the time well, but not the place, the Deep South on the cusp of change.  I spent my childhood in the suburbs of Milwaukee, and no one in my family or my neighborhood had full time help, or anyone approaching a maid.  Many families had cleaning ladies, usually once a week.  My mother had Mrs. Morgan, and my memories of her are patchy at best.  She was white, probably German-American, maybe in her fifties.  She seemed old to me back then, but I was under ten.  She didn’t like cats, and the feeling was mutual.  Our cat would disappear every Wednesday morning half an hour before Mrs. Morgan arrived, and reappear half an hour after she left.  We never figured out where she hid.  Mrs. Morgan made terrific grape jam, an art my mother had no desire to learn, so once a year my dad would come home with baskets of fresh grapes and Mrs. Morgan would put up jars and jars of jam, which lasted us for months.

My aunt had a black cleaning lady named Flo, a cheerful heavy-set woman who polished the floors by wrapping her feet in rags and was reputed to eat raw pork chops, something we regarded as beyond the pale.  (I wonder if there has been a recorded case of trichinosis in the U.S. in the last fifty years?  My cousins and I were brought up to believe it was an immediate danger.)  Flo was nice enough to us kids, friendlier than Mrs. Morgan, but that was it.  She was the cleaning lady.  My grandfather would have described her in terms no longer acceptable, but with no malicious intent.  His approach to race relations was Archie Bunker’s:  Those People were not like us, except for the ones he knew personally, who were just fine.

When I was ten we moved to the suburbs of Miami, geographically south, culturally not so much.  Miami back then was a place where everyone was from somewhere else, mostly from the north.  Relatively few of the kids I went to school with were born in South Florida; even fewer had parents from the area.  No one had grown up with, been effectively raised by, the Help, as Kathryn Stockett describes.

Yet I remember the news from those years, the deaths of Medgar Evers, JFK, Martin Luther King.  Black churches burned down and blown up.  Freedom marches and race riots.  And the little things:  the bus station where I stopped on the way home from junior high, with its white and colored water fountains and bathrooms marked Men, Women, and Colored.  Things we took for granted back then, things that seem so crude today.

The Help is often very funny, but the undercurrent of casual, unthinking, unconscious cruelty is horrifying in its own quiet way.  I identified with Skeeter, the young white woman who decides to interview maids for a book, at first simply wanting to break into publishing, but then so deeply involved with the real lives of the maids, lives she had hardly suspected existed.  But Aibileen and Minny, the brave and determined women at the heart of the story, will stay with me for a long, long time.