The 1960s were a particular time of upheaval for the United States. One of America’s most iconic presidents was gunned down in Texas. The Vietnam War began. And, of course, the extreme oppression that black and African Americans faced during the Civil Rights Movement. This is the world of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.
The novel’s story is told from the points of view of three Jacksonian women, with the narrator changing every few chapters or so. Two of the women work as maids in affluent white households, and one of whom falls into the social circles of the white women.
The first voice belongs to Aibileen Clark, who works for the new mother Miss Elizabeth Leefolt. Aibileen is a veteran maid, but despite this, she believes that Miss Leefolt’s daughter, Mae Mobley, is her “special baby.” Mae Mobley is also the first child she cares for after the death of her own son, Treelore, which likely catalyzed Aibileen’s special relationship with her.
The second is Minny Jackson, Aibileen’s best friend and fellow maid. Minny originally works for the senile mother of one of Jackson’s most prominent housewives and notorious racist Hilly Holbrook. After Hilly wrongfully (yet purposefully) accuses Minny of stealing from her mother, she is forced to find work with another family. Minny ultimately settles for Celia Rae Foote, a social outcast from the slum of Sugar Ditch with a sunny disposition who is hiding some dark secrets.
The third and final voice belongs to Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a younger woman with ugly duckling syndrome who wants nothing more than to move out of Jackson and become a writer. This goal is much to the displeasure of her mother, who wanted Skeeter to come home from college with a husband rather than a degree. Skeeter is unlike Aibileen and Minny because she is not one of “the help”, but rather a rich woman who is childhood friends with both Elizabeth and Hilly.
Skeeter eventually finds work writing for the local newspaper in an advice column dedicated to housekeeping. Because Skeeter knows next to nothing about this subject, she seeks the advice of her friend Elizabeth’s maid: Aibileen. Her interactions with Aibileen inspire Skeeter to write an ethnographic study of the experiences of black maids working for white families in the South.
Skeeter presents the idea to Aibileen, who is extremely hesitant, thinking that publishing the book could incite racial violence against black people in Jackson. Nevertheless, Skeeter begins a low-grade friendship with Aibileen and eventually Minny, who educate her on the complexities of the lives of “the help” and the families they work for.
This book is definitely one to immerse yourself in, but for those of us that need to study for finals and might not have the time to read an entire novel, Tate Taylor directed the 2011 Academy Award-winning film adaptation. It stars Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain, three of whom were nominated for Academy Awards. This is one of the rare occasions in which the film is actually on par with the book, as it is extremely faithful to the novel and pays close attention to its subtle nuances that made it truly unique.
The Help is among one of my favorite pieces of literature, largely due to its story centering on the lives of three women. And while one of the three focal characters does pursue a romantic relationship, it is not one of the central focuses of the book. What is of true importance is the relationships between the women, whether as friends, mother and daughter, caretaker and child, enemies or otherwise, and how these relationships are impacted by the race relations in Jackson as well as in the United States during a time of great change.