This highly-acclaimed recent novel is set in Mississippi in 1962 and tells the story of two middle-aged African-American women who have worked all their lves as housekeepers and child-care workers in white homes, and the young white woman who becomes determined to write down their stories – initially as an attempt to break into the publishing world with “something different” so she can free herself from the stultifying life offered a woman of of her age, class and background. But, as the story goes on, “Skeeter” Phelan becomes more involved in the stories of the women she is writing about and her conscience is awakened to genuine injustices which previously gave her only an uneasy sense of something “not quite right.”
Set in the early 60s just on the cusp of the civil rights movement, this novel explores a fascinating time when the status quo is still taken for granted by the vast majority of people, both black and white, yet a tiny and vocal minority is beginning to question it and attempt to change things. Change is never comfortable or easy, and that’s an underlying theme in The Help – many people, on both the black and white sides of the social divide, would rather keep race relations exactly as they are for fear of the upheaval that change will bring. But change is inevitable, and we see how a change of attitudes plays out in one individual as Skeeter is transformed from an unhappy but socially acceptable daughter of a prominent white family, to a happy but wiser proto-hippy getting ready to leave the South for New York City at the end of the novel.
Though I found Skeeter and her story engaging, the real heart of The Help is the other two first-person narrators, Aibileen and Minny. Both were born and raised to a life of domestic service and have never questioned their lot in life, though they question many of the specific injustices and casual cruelties they face from their white employers. Minny, particularly, is outspoken and loses a series of jobs for not knowing her place and speaking her mind to white women, while Aibileen, whose opinions are just as strong, provides more of a voice of wisdom and moderation as she is more keenly aware of the consequences of speaking out.
One aspect of this novel that drew my attention immediately was the use of dialect, not just in dialogue but in the narration of both Minny’s and Aibileen’s sections of the book. Dialect is very, very hard to write well — and I say this as a Newfoundland writer who has struggled with how to recreate our unique dialect in fiction, and has read far too many books that attempted to reproduce dialect and simply made for painful reading. Kathryn Stockett brilliantly avoids the pitfalls of writing dialect; while I guess only an African-American reader would be able to say if Minny’s and Aibileen’s voices sound truly authentic, they certainly sound convincing and consistent — and beautiful. All three women’s voices weave together to create a vivid picture of the complex relationship between white Southern families and the black women who clean their homes and raise their children. The Help is a snapshot of life in a very specific time and place that is so vivid it lingers with the reader and maybe even makes us question the injustices we take for granted in everyday life.