A novel set in 1960s Mississippi written from the point of view of a white woman and two black maids could have easily gone wrong, and quickly. White author Kathryn Stockett was all too aware of that possibility. She says in a section at the end of the book that she “was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person” and “afraid I would fail to describe a relationship (between herself and the black maid who helped raise her) that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature.” But Stockett pulls it off with aplomb.
Skeeter, a white woman recently graduated from college, has come back to live with her parents on their cotton plantation. Her mother only wants her very tall, somewhat ungainly daughter to find a husband at last and live the nice, privileged life that she is expected to live. But Skeeter (real name Eugenia) has other dreams that her mother and longtime friends just don’t understand: she wants to move to New York and work as an editor at Harper & Row. Instead, she is stuck in Jackson and not sure how to proceed. She misses her beloved maid, Constantine, who was more of a mother to her than her real mother, and doesn’t know why her mother fired her while she was away at Ole Miss, not allowing her a chance to say goodbye.
Aibileen is a maid who has worked for a number of white families over the years, raising 17 white children. She only had one son of her own, an intelligent young man who had promise but few opportunities given the time and place. But he was working at a mill to pay bills and one rainy night fell off a loading dock, and he was killed by a tractor trailer. She hasn’t been really the same since. The young woman she works for is an uptight and insecure member of the Jackson League, who ignores her toddler daughter and worries about her lowly financial situation, as compared to that of her friends.
Minny is a younger maid with a “sassy mouth” who has a hard time living out the role she should, to stay quiet and unobtrusive and just do what she’s told. She has an unfortunate run-in with Hilly, the bossy president of the League, and ends up only being able to find work for a woman new to town who is scorned by the League ladies.
All end up working together on an unlikely and secret project that exposes just how different their lives are, but is a beautiful reminder of how less separates them than the culture would have had them believe.
The Help is a profoundly moving novel that transcends stereotypes and brings to life characters who are sympathetic and real. It opens up a conduit for current-day Americans to come to at least a little better understanding of a time and place that is largely unknown to us.
Rated: Moderate, for mild and moderate language and a crude scene featuring a disturbed, naked transient.