The Help is one of those books I wish I hadn’t taken so long to find and read. Even though it was published in 2009, the book reads like an American classic. The story follows the lives of several women in the Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s. The women range from white socialites to the African American women hired as maids. Stockett changes the point of view of the story several times between three main characters: Skeeter, a white socialite struggling to find something real to do with her life and passion for writing, and Aibileen and Minnie, African American maids to women in Skeeter’s social circle.
Skeeter returns from college with a degree in Journalism a bit disenchanted from her former friends who went to college to find husbands. Searching for something to do, she reaches out to publishing firms in New York City. While instantly rejected, she does catch the eye of one executive who encourages her to write something new and exciting. After watching how her friends treat their hired help, she decides to reach out to them and tell their stories in her writing with the publication of a book. Only one maid, Aibileen, signs on at first, but they work together to encourage other maids to work on the project as well. The maids tell stories, both positive and negative, of what it’s like to work for white families. The reader also gains first hand experience with the perspectives of Aibileen and Minnie throughout the book. Some of the stories are shocking but an important reminder of what was in our own recent past.
Stockett portrays Skeeter as the black sheep of her rich family and social circle, but she does not make her perfect beyond the point of believing it. Skeeter wants to help these women, but she still struggles with her own experiences with maids and finds herself still longing for acceptance by her white friends and family. She constantly awakens to the changing world around her that Stockett portrays through events like the Kennedy assassination and King’s Million Man March, as well as racially charged events in and around Jackson. She is not the white heroine saving poor, helpless African Americans. She has her weaknesses that greatly contrast with the strengths of the maids.
The perspectives of Minnie and Aibileen are some of the most rewarding of the novel. They are strong women who face challenges within their own families, struggles to be a part of the “white world”, and the pressure of working on the book project with Skeeter and the hopes of their community riding on its success. You cheer for them and fear for them throughout the story, and when the pages end you just want to keep going with what will happen next in their lives.
The Help could be a preachy, feel good story of little substance (as the movie previews seem to show, which is perhaps why the film has stirred up some controversy). It is so much more. The Help does not find easy solutions of gently gloss over racial issues. It fully dives into the conflicts between white and black in bold events and subtle everyday circumstances of that time. The stories are powerful and not everything ends up perfect, but that’s not how it worked in reality either as our country continues to struggle with race relations. The most disappointing part of the book for me was actually the accompanying reading guide that shied away from asking questions about race in America, but that is not too surprising. While the move previews do not do the book justice, hopefully the film makers had the courage to tackle the racial issues as portrayed in the book itself. The Help is a great read more than worth your time and it will leave you thinking not only about where this country has been but where we are today.