With its setting in Mississippi circa the 1960s, Kathryn Stockett’s novel ‘The Help’ unites three very different women under one important cause. Two black maids and one young white woman find solace in each other during an era of extreme racial tensions and hardships.
Focusing on a community of young white socialites and their maids, Skeeter Phelan begins to view life differently than her friends do. Rather than thinking about marriage, kids and up-and-coming social gatherings, Skeeter strays from the norm by wanting to follow her dreams of becoming a writer.
After receiving some advice from a big editor in New York, she takes a position at a local paper writing answers to readers’ questions. Realizing that she knows nothing about how to care for a home or a family, Skeeter turns to Aibileen, the maid of one of her close friends. It is this moment that thrusts the rest of the novel into gear.
Skeeter decides to write a book, and while she knows the consequences that come along with her idea and the implications it could have, she can’t seem to stop thinking about it. Writing a book describing the lives of maids working in the South is something unheard of; however, after she enlists Aibileen’s help, it becomes something plausible. Many of the other maids are too scared to agree to be interviewed, but after Aibileen’s boisterous best friend Minny decides to help, other maids come forth as well.
What makes ‘The Help’ an intriguing and interesting testimonial of the South in the 1960s is that Stockett realistically embraces the important quest these three women set out to accomplish, as well as the very real and horrible consequences that await them if they are discovered. She is able to fuse together historical facts and character fiction that allow her to valiantly recreate a time where people were afraid to voice their true feelings and, every day, black men and women lived in fear for their lives and well-being.
Every few chapters Stockett switches the point of view between Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny, which allows readers to understand the perspectives of both the employers and employees. It also makes visible the differences between Aibileen and Minny as maids. Aibileen is quiet and kind, with a sincere love for the children she raises, whereas Minny has always been loud and outspoken, and many times unable to find work because of it. While they have been best friends for years, it is Skeeter’s book that brings them together under one cause.
Stockett also intelligently raises the ironies that lie in the midst of such an era. The Junior League, headed by Skeeter’s friend Miss Hilly, raises money for The Poor Starving Children of Africa foundation, and yet refuses to acknowledge the racial inequalities in the members’ own homes. Aibileen often thinks about how she loves and cares for the children of the white households she works for, and no matter what she tries to instill in them, it is inevitable that they end up just the same as their parents.
‘The Help’ has remained on The New York Times bestseller list for 53 weeks and currently holds the No. 2 spot.