Set in the volatile world of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s,The Help, a debut novel from Kathryn Stockett, is full of good food and hidden feelings. The tension between the world of the white and the separate but intersecting world of black people is like a tight wire about to snap. Enter into this scene a naïve, newly graduated young Southern woman full of ambition- not to get married like most of her friends but rather to be a journalist. “Skeeter” Phelan was born and raised in Mississippi, but she is somewhat oblivious to the fragility of the relationship between the whites of Jackson and the blacks that work for them.
Aibileen has always known she would be a maid. Her mother was a maid and her grandmother was a domestic slave before her. She knows how to get the ring off of the bathtub and she has raised seventeen white babies, but what she can not do is get over the death of her own son. With patience and wisdom, Aibileen raises the white children to know they are important for who they are on the inside.
Minny, the third narrator of the book, is an artist with a caramel cake and unable to hold her tongue. This has lost her plenty of jobs and most recently has got her in hot water with Miss Hilly Holbrook, women’s league president and society queen of Jackson. Fearing that Miss Hilly will have her blacklisted from all maid jobs in Jackson, Minny fakes a reference for a job with Miss Celia Rae Foote, a white woman who may be even more alone and isolated than Minny.
When Skeeter decides to write a book which tells the secret life of black maids and their white employers, the three women begin a journey which is always dangerous, often painful and sometimes hilarious. As the women tell their stories, Skeeter’s eyes are opened to the painful truth about her friends and her family who are hiding a secret about their own long time maid.
Kathryn Stockett’s novel reflects her own life and gives insight into a complexity of emotional relationships between people treated unequally. While not presuming to know what it was really like to be a black woman in the 1960’s south, the author does hope that we will realize: “We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as [we] thought.” A good reminder for any place and time.