The Help: a novel by Kathryn Stockett. G.P.Putnam’s Sons 2009.
I read The Help for the most frivolous of reasons. I noticed it advertised on the Amazon website and the cover art caught my eye, three birds perched against a yellow background with a mauve title plate above. The # 1 New York Times Bestseller, the caption over the title reads. I was looking for a light read, so I put my name on the library waiting list. My number came up last week.
The Help is about the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is set in Jackson, Mississippi and at the beginning of chapter one, the date is August, 1962. The story is told from the viewpoint of three women, Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter. Aibileen is a black woman who works as a domestic for Elizabeth. Much of her work involves caring for little Mae Mobley, Elizabeth’s daughter. Aibileen has cared for many white children over her working career. The tragedy of her life is that her own son perished in an avoidable industrial accident. Minny is a younger black woman who lives with her abusive husband and helps support their 5 children by working as a maid. After being fired from her position caring for Hilly Holbrook’s mother, she finds employment with Celia Foote. Celia is married to successful business man Johnny Foote, but she cannot find the acceptance she craves from her peers, who view her as white trash. Finally, there is Miss Skeeter, so nicknamed by her older brother at birth because of her long limbs. She is the privileged white daughter of a cotton farm owner. Unlike the other young women she knows, she did not marry while still in college and is something of a social outcast. Her mother is anxious that she marry well and settle down, but Skeeter fancies a career as a writer. The lives of these three women come together when Skeeter has an idea that will jumpstart her writing career: she will record the stories of the maids she sees around her town and have them published in a book. At first timorous, a group of black women finally agree to participate, to find their voices.
The book is a quick read, as the action gallops along in short chapters that tell the story from the viewpoint of each of the women. Elements of the story are based on true incidents, such as the shooting of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi as its first black student. Author Kathryn Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and I thought she did a good job of capturing the mood of the times.
Reviews on Amazon, and there are many, are almost universally glowing. There are a few complaints that the characters are too stereotyped, the storyline too contrived, the ending too pat, the vernacular speech of the maids incorrect, and the whole thing a prelude to a made-for-TV movie. The book is not great literature. However, while not without faults, the novel is a good vehicle for introducing a new generation of readers to the civil rights movement in an absorbing and entertaining manner.