This thought provoking first novel from Kathryn Stockett focuses on the lives of three extraordinary women in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. Stockett takes us on a journey through their intertwined relationships, and gives us a privileged insight into how these women feel, how they cope with different hardships, and what they think about one another in a racially discriminatory, class driven society that was undergoing major changes.
Eugenia Phelan, known as Miss Skeeter because of her ‘mosquito-thin’ appearance as a child, returns from university to her family cotton plantation with a burning ambition to become a writer, and to a mother who is determined that she should get married as soon as possible. Constantine, the family maid who raised Skeeter, has mysteriously disappeared, and as Skeeter attempts to find out what has happened to her cherished carer she comes up with the idea of writing the stories of the ‘help’, the black domestic maids who work for the wealthy white Southern families.
Down to earth and kind hearted Aibileen is raising her seventeenth white child, but with the loss of her own son in an accident she herself admits that ‘a bitter seed was plant inside a me”. However she is now devoted to looking after little Mae Mobley, the daughter of the unloving Miss Leefolt. Minny is Aibileen’s best friend and the best cook in town, but she also has a big mouth that seems to get her into trouble and out of jobs. The voice of each of the three women is totally distinctive as they tell their story in different chapters, and although it seems strange for Stockett, a white woman, to write in the voice of a black woman, it works. As you read the book you will find yourself taking on the Southern drawl of Skeeter and then lapsing into the dialect of Mammy from Gone with the Wind when Minny speaks.
There are some wonderful characters, such as the Marilyn Monroe lookalike Miss Celia Foote, new to town and ostracized by her contemporaries. Then there is the white Southern belle Miss Hilly – Skeeter’s former best friend and the bigoted president of the town’s Junior League. It is when Hilly initiates a scheme to build separate toilet facilities for the ‘black help’ in Jackson that Skeeter embarks on her mission to become the voice of those who are never heard. The narrative is funny; full of wit and humour, but it also highlights the social and political unrest during the civil rights movement
The Help explores the problems of racial inequality in an era gone by, but at the same time can be seen as a timeless and universal story that is filled with poignancy and hope. A compelling read and one to definitely add to your bookshelf, but – and this is a spoiler alert – don’t eat Minny’s chocolate pie!