I know I am the last person to read Katheryn Stockett’s debut novel The Help, a story about three women in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, but late to the table or not, I am so glad I decided to sit down.
The story is about three women: Aibileen, a black maid working for a white family; Minny, her saucy best friend, also a maid for a white family; and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a fresh college graduate, returning home to find that her maid, Constantine, who raised her, has mysteriously disappeared. Aibileen has just lost her only son, Minny is facing trying to find a job when her reputation for talking back precedes her, and Skeeter is trying to find her place while attempting to begin a career in writing. Through getting a job at the local newspaper writing a housekeeping advice column, Skeeter strikes up a tentative friendship with Aibileen (her friend Elizabeth’s maid), who helps her write the column. Later, the two of them begin a project writing a book about the relationship between white women and their maids, all while trying to protect themselves from the racial tension of Jackson.
I wish I could demand everyone read this book. Stockett is wonderful at drawing rich, three-dimensional characters, who each have flaws and learn something about themselves as the story proceeds. She also accurately portrays relationships between women, some close, some toxic, and the importance of remembering that the characters are a part of a bigger picture. Abuse, cancer, abandonment, broken engagements, miscarriage, death, infertility, and rejection are tackled with both sensitivity and frankness – something sincerely lacking in today’s literary market. Younger readers will also learn something about the climate of the south during the Civil Rights Movement, and hopefully be able to appreciate how far our country has come. What I enjoyed most about the book though, is that ultimately, each character is able to look forward with unbounding hope, having formed close bonds in the most unlikely places along the way – something we can all relate to.