The Help is a wonderful story set in the deep south of Jackson, Mississippi and it is told through the eyes of three amazing women who join together to write stories of what it is like to be a maid in the 1960's during the civil rights movement. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, comes home after graduation from Ole Miss in 1962. She is different than other women during this time, she is not anxious to get married and she has a college degree. She wants to find a job and applies for one at a NYC publishing firm. She is encouraged by an editor there and finds a job at the local newspaper writing a weekly cleaning advice column. She enlists the help from a friends maid which opens up the door to another writing idea and the start of an amazing connection between Skeeter and two maids and incredible ladies, Aibileen and Minny.
Aibileen and Minny's characters portray the beauty and strength of black women who were maids in the south during this time of great difficulty. Their strength of character shined through the pages through their first person narratives. The reader could understand the fear and tension and discrimination that these women felt. We could also see the ignorance and arrogance of white people during this time and I disliked many of them for these traits. Sadly, this is the reality of this time but Aibileen and Minny were able to make changes in their own lives indirectly through these stories. They loved the white children that they raised and many white families treated them very well. They also had to endure their own hardships within their own families sacrificing much to make ends meet. I was struck by the depths and layers of honesty this book portrays. This is not an easy time to write about and there is much shame I felt as a white women reading this that these events or ones similar to them, actually occurred in our history and racism on so many levels continues to exist. The book does leave you with a great sense of hope and as the characters in this book stood up to make change, this reflects the reality of time that so many others did as well.
The Help is Kathryn Stockett's first novel and what a wise and powerful debut this book is. Ms. Stockett shares in the acknowledgements and on her website that she was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi and was raised by a black maid. You can tell through her writing that this is a story close to her heart and one that she took great care in writing. One point that the author shares in her acknowledgement is that there was one line in the book that she prizes and it touched me as I read the book as well:
"Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much seperates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought. "
The Help is definitely one that is on my list of Best Books for 2009. It is a powerful and engaging book that I could not put down and I continue to think about the characters and the story after I have finished it. Make sure to visit Kathryn Stockett's website to read more about The Help, find discussion questions, discussion with the author, read an excerpt and more. You can listen to a podcast with the author here.
Thank you to Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Books for providing me with an ARC copy of this book.