by Kathryn Stockett
GP Putnam & Sons, 2009
The Help tells the story of Jacksonville, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Three white women - Hilly, Elizabeth, and Skeeter, friends since elementary school - brought up by their mothers to treat colored maids as inferior, though "the help" do everything to simplify their lives, including raising their children. Hilly is the trend-setter, the rule-follower, the enforcer. Elizabeth is the oppressed, in many ways an unwilling wife and mother, who nonetheless toes the line. Skeeter is the nontraditional one who puts education and career first, although she longs to be loved by a man just for who she is. It is Skeeter who rebels against "the way things are."
Aibelene is Elizabeth's maid. Minny initially works for Hilly's mother, Miss Walker, until Hilly puts her mother in a nursing home, and makes it impossible for Minny to be hired by another white family in town. Skeeter, a budding journalist who answers the Dear Myrna housekeeping letters for the local paper, starts meeting with Aibelene so she can keep her job, but longs to write something more meaningful. One day she hits upon a theme - why not interview the help to get their perspective on what it's like working for white families?
At first her request falls on deaf ears - why would a white woman be interested in their stories? and anyway, it's too dangerous. Blacks are being beaten without provocation, and whites who support integration suffer their own consequences. Eventually, though, a couple of the maids agree, and Skeeter starts penning their tales.
This is an incredible read. The characters are fully drawn, complex individuals. The plot is thick with tension, peppered with comic relief at the appropriate intervals. I could not put the book down. I went to bed and woke up thinking about the characters and what was to become of them, hoping that their secretive meetings would not be found out. The book would translate well on the big screen, and I fully expect it will be made into a movie before too long.
Read this - it's the book that has everyone talking.