Monday, June 28, 2010

The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

Aibileen, a black maid in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s, works for an upper-middle-class white woman, Miss Elizabeth Leefolt, doing the housekeeping, cooking the meals, and raising the woman's little girl, Mae Mobley. Miss Elizabeth seems to have little interest in her daughter, and Mae Mobley can't help but notice. Meanwhile, Miss Hilly, one of the white woman's dearest friends, advises her to build an addition to her house -- a restroom just for Aibileen's use. After all, it's just not sanitary to be using the same facilities as the help, is it?

Miss Skeeter Phelan, a friend of Elizabeth's and Hilly's, decides she wants to be a writer, and believes she's come up with the perfect idea for a book -- what's it like to be a black maid? They must have some interesting experiences, right? So she asks Aibileen if she or anyone she knows might be interested in telling her their stories. Aibileen's response, of course, is less than enthusiastic. This is 1963, in the deep South, and there's no way Aibileen or any thinking person would endanger their job, their family, or their community by talking, let alone publishing. Skeeter assures Aibileen that everything would be anonymous -- she'll even change the name of their town. Soon the project is underway.

Stockett, who started writing "The Help" based on her memories of her family's black maid, Demetri, does her best to capture the voice of two maids, Aibileen and Minnie, as well as Skeeter. Whether she succeeds (or offends) is for you to decide. For me, my wife, and most readers we've talked to, the book is a heartfelt success, bringing the reader to a time and place and community that would otherwise be hard to imagine. More than most books I've read, this was hard to put down. I especially recommend the audio version, which uses three actresses for the three main characters.