The Help takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 and is narrated by three different women.
Skeeter, a young white woman, has just returned home with a diploma from Ole Miss. She has dreams of becoming a writer, but all her mother wants is for her to meet a nice man and get married:
I drive my mama’s Cadillac fast on the gravel road, headed home. Patsy Cline can’t even be heard on the radio anymore, for all the rocks banging the side of the car. Mother would be furious, but I just drive faster. I can’t stop thinking about what Hilly said to me today at bridge club.
Hilly and Elizabeth and I have been best friends since Power Elementary. My favorite photograph is of the three of us sitting in the football stands in junior high, all jammed together, shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. What makes the picture, though, is that the stands are completely empty around us. We sat close because we were close.
Aibileen is an older black woman, working as a maid for Skeeter’s best friend, Elizabeth:
Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.
But I ain’t never seen a baby yell like Mae Mobley Leefolt. First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic, fighting that bottle like it’s a rotten turnip. Miss Leefolt, she look terrified a her own child. “What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I stop it?”
It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation.
And Minny is a friend of Aibileen’s. known for her amazing cooking skills and for her sassy mouth which often gets her in trouble:
Standing on that white lady’s back porch, I tell myself, Tuck it in, Minny. Tuck in whatever might fly out my mouth and tuck in my behind, too. Look like a maid who does what she is told. Truth is, I’m so nervous right now, I’d never backtalk again if it meant I’d get this job.
I yank my hose up from sagging around my feet – the trouble of all fat, short women around the world. Then I rehearse what to say, what to keep to myself. I go ahead and punch the bell.
Each of these three women is fascinating on her own, but their paths are destined to cross in ways that will change all of their lives forever. Things are changing in the world, even though Mississippi seems to be lagging behind. These three women come together to do something unbelievably brave, and perhaps foolish.
The stories of these women – and of the rest of the women in town, black and white – are all entwined together, creating a mosaic of a time when there were social lines that were not crossed. This novel is about those lines and about what happens when people dare to step outside of them. There are the hateful emotions between races that you might expect for the time – prejudice, fear, anger – but this book is also about the loving relationships between the black maids and the white children they cared for and raised. Stockett writes, in part, from her own experiences, growing up in Mississippi with a close relationship with her family’s own maid.
Stockett’s writing is vivid and real, pulling you into this captivating and volatile period of time and place. You come to care about the main characters, to hate others, and to feel as if you are living more within the story than within your own life for a short time. And it will be a short time because you will be unable to put this book down. I found myself carrying it around with me, stealing five minutes of reading time whenever I could. That, to me, is the mark of an extraordinary novel. The Help will stay with me for a long time.
For more information about the book and the author, check out Elizabeth Stockett’s website.
451 pages, Amy Einhorn Books (Putnam)