There was a time in this nation when, for African-Americans, racial barriers existed for everything from marriage to bathrooms. When it was less deadly to be seen and not heard – a time when friendships between women of two races simply didn’t happen, especially if one of those women was your maid.
First-time author Kathryn Stockett writes about the struggles of African-American maids in the 1960s and the women they worked for in the novel The Help. Set in the segregated and volatile town of Jackson, Mississippi, The Help focuses on three women. The first is Aibileen, an African-American woman who has worked for white families for more than 20 years with a special love of raising children. The second is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a white woman recently graduated from college who wants to be a writer. Third is Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, who has a reputation for back-talking to her employers and for being the best cook in town, especially for her pies.
When Skeeter returns from college she sets out to write a “meaningful” book and enlists the help of Aibileen and Minny to gather stories from the black maids in Jackson about what it’s like to work for white families. Between the efforts to convince other maids to participate, cover their tracks to keep their book a secret and the challenges of working and living their lives, the three women develop a deep respect and appreciation for one another.
Written from the perspective of all three women, Stockett did a wonderful job of creating three distinct voices for the chapters. It is obvious by the word choice and tone which woman is speaking, even if the chapters were not named. Despite its theme, The Help is not preachy or self-righteous but rather an interesting glimpse into the past, into a time that most of us, thankfully, have never experienced.
In addition to racism, the book also touches on sexism and classism as the main characters and the women around them deal with being “the weaker sex” and the struggles that come from being considered “white trash” or a “society lady.”
Overall, The Help is an uplifting read about friendship, overcoming prejudice and loving oneself. But don’t take my word for it.
I recommend you read it before the movie comes out.