It took me several weeks to finally retrieve The Help from the library's waiting list, but I was determined to find out what the fuss was about. Kathryn Stockett's first novel has appeared on The New York Times bestseller list for 48 weeks. It was worth the wait. The Help (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam) is a beautiful story of a powerful bond that develops between three women in the segregated South.
The Help, set in Mississippi, 1962, will likely remind readers of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird for its themes of racial injustice, class differences, and gender roles. Stockett's story begins by introducing her most charming character, Aibileen, a black maid who spends her days taking care of white babies and her nights writing down prayers. The woman she works for has just been convinced to install a special bathroom for Aibileen's use, believing that African Americans carry special diseases. Overhearing the conversation, a white woman named Skeeter asks Aibileen whether she ever wishes she could change things. Her question is cut short by Aibileen's employer, but the idea lingers with Aibileen.
"The thing is though, if I start praying for Miss Skeeter, I know that conversation gon continue the next time I see her," Aibileen says. "And the next and the next. Cause that's the way prayer do. It's like electricity, it keeps things going …. Law, I reckon I just go ahead and put Miss Skeeter on the list, but how come, I don't know."
Skeeter is a 22-year-old budding writer whose mentor has instructed her, "Write what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else." She embarks on a project to interview several black maids and tell the stories of how their employers treat them. The challenge, though, is to get the maids to talk. As Minny, another maid, explains to Skeeter, " … the NAACP officer who live five minutes away, they blew up his carport last night. For talking."
Skeeter eventually persuades Aibileen to participate in her project by dictating the stories she's written down. "Can't be much different than writing my prayers every night," she says. "You don't say your prayers then?" Skeeter asks. "Find I can get my point across a lot better writing 'em down," Aibileen replies. Skeeter determines that the writing is clear, honest. "Well, look who I been writing to. Can't lie to God."
Skeeter risks her friendship with her old roommate, Miss Hilly, who does fundraising for "the Poor Starving Children of Africa" while she treats the black maids like they are thieves. Without turning the novel into a 'message' book, Stockett reveals the ironies of ways blacks were treated in the segregated South; for example, the maids raise the children of their employers, who are convinced the maids have diseases related to their skin color.
Stockett's tale also illustrates the power of truth telling. As the civil rights movement starts to gain momentum throughout the country, more maids become eager for their stories to be heard. The little girl whom Aibileen cares for asks one day, "How come you're colored, Aibileen?" "Now I've gotten this question a few times from my other white kids. I used to just laugh, but I want to get this right with her. 'Cause God made me colored,' I say. 'And there ain't another reason in the world.' "
Some readers might find the book's rhythm difficult to get used to. Janet Maslin of The New York Times points out the potential risks of "a Southern-born white author who renders black maids' voices in thick, dated dialect." The author switches between the three women's stories, so dialects change every few chapters. DreamWorks Studios has picked up the film rights to the novel, so expect the story to be around for a while.
Overall, Stockett subtly shows the power of a truthful narrative. She skillfully weaves the stories of three women into a compelling account of the risks women take to combat injustice.