The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Published February 2009 by Penguin Group
Life in early 1960's Mississippi as told primary from the point of view of "the help." Aibilene is a widowed African-American woman who hires out to families with small children. They were her babies, but when they start to get older and start to take on the racist attitudes of their parents, it's time for her to move on. Minny can cook like no one else and would be able to get a job in any household except for the fact that she is unable to hold her tongue and is constantly losing her job. Miss Skeeter is a recent college graduate and a member of the Junior League who has moved home and is struggling to find her way. Most of her friends didn't even attend college and are content being mothers and wives. But Skeeter wants to be a writer, not an easy task for young woman in the South at the time. When Skeeter is told that she should write about something completely different, she comes up with an idea that will put the three of them in danger.
Stockett could so easily have missed when slipping into the voice of 1960's African-American domestics, but she captures the cadence, rhythm and diction perfectly. How would I know, you might ask, particularly if you know that I grew up in the Midwest? Partly because I've seen a lot of documentary footage from the time, partly because of reading I've done but mostly because that's what the people that did live in that time and place have said about the book.
In addition to Minny, Aibilene, and Miss Skeeter, Stockett has filled the book with a number of memorable characters. Here again, it would have been easy for Stockett to slip into stereo types but these characters are nearly all multi-dimensional. She makes the reader understand the thinking behind the way some whites treated their help. And she makes it clear that not all of the help was mistreated.
Because the project the women take on is so dangerous (Medgar Evers is killed during the book only blocks from where Aibilene lives), the book is filled with tension. And here is my one and only complaint with the book. Even when the project begins to be discovered, nothing much happens and I felt a little bit like the build up was for nothing. But I was happy that Stockett did not end things too neatly. The rest of the book had felt so realistic, an ending where they all lived "happily-ever-after" would have felt wrong.
Wendy, at Caribou's Mom, reviewed this book here. And Mari, at Bookworm With A View, posted her review here.