Life in the 1960s, in Jackson, Mississippi was difficult for most people. Being a black maid, raising children not your own, was made even more difficult by the times.
In The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, we follow the coming of age of a young white woman, one raised and well-loved by her own family’s black maid, Constantine. When Miss Skeeter goes away to school to learn a trade in writing, she maintains a long distance relationship via letters. When the letters suddenly stop, she is hurt by the silence, but knows she will get an explanation from Constantine when she gets home. Little does she know at that time, she will never see her loving maid again.
Elizabeth Leefolt and Hilly Holbrook are Skeeter’s best friends. Having grown up together, they maintain that relationship. They belong to the same groups and attend the same parties. When Elizabeth has a daughter, her maid Aibileen takes on the task of caring for her. For Aibileen it is a labor of love — Mae Mobley is a sweet child, and Aibileen dotes on her. But Skeeter begins to see a different world than the one she remembers.
Fresh out of school, Skeeter decides to apply for a job as editor, for the publishers Harper and Roe. When she receives a letter back from Elaine Stein, the senior editor, she is in heaven. However, the letter is to inform her she is not being hired. Miss Stein is willing to look at her writing though, but informs her that is must be both interesting and dear to her heart. Skeeter offers up her thoughts but is turned down.
When she continues to interact within her circle, she begins to pay attention to the interaction of the maids and the families they work for. Remembering her own upbringing, she decides to get the maids to tell their stories; this is what she will submit. Little does she know just how dangerous and difficult of a task this is. This is a turbulent time, a time of race riots, murders, and hate. How will she move forward, and who will tell their story?
As Skeeter works on her plan she finds a job with the Jackson Journal. She will write the Miss Myrna column, a column that supplies answers to domestic questions. She decides to get help with the answers from an expert. Her friend Elizabeth allows her to ask Abilieen, her own maid, for answers. This bond then forges a trust and an uneasy alliance that will shake the very foundations of the Jackson lives and interactions, giving a voice to a group of people long oppressed.
Stockett has written a story set in the turbulent era heralding the death of a beloved president, John F Kennedy, the murder of Medgar Evers, and the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. Hate and distrust were high, and life for many of these maids was unimaginable. Stockett’s characters are strong, sometimes bold, yet sometimes silent. She adds humor and fun, as well as danger and intrigue into her dialogue. Writing from the point of view of numerous characters, she has done an amazing job of pulling together a story that gets to the heart of the times.
Using fact and fiction, she weaves a strong telling of how life was lived in these households. Using her own background, she uses her knowledge to get into the heart of what living during this time may have really been like.
I would recommend The Help for a book club or reading group. The style is interesting and while a bit difficult at the beginning, once you understand the technique the story evolves and takes you to that time and place in history. To borrow a line from Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — and Miss Stockett puts you right in the middle, making you think. The humor is real, but the pain and angst also weave their way into the fray. The characters are gutsy and bold, pulling you in, and earning your respect. A great book for your library.