When Skeeter Phelan returns from college in 1962 to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi she realises how little she has in common with her old school friends. Now married, they all have black housemaids to clean house and look after the children. Having become the new “Miss Myrna”, she approaches Abileen, maid to her friend Elizabeth Leefolt, for advice.
As racial barriers fall and tensions rise, the unlikely pair become friends. Aided by Minny, maid to the eccentric Celia Foote, they begin a project that could put them all in great danger, though they hope it may change lives for the better.
Each chapter is told in the voice of one of the women, revealing their inner turmoil. “Miss Skeeter” is torn between loyalty to her family, alienation from former friends, and a desire to be a writer in New York, where the proper writers live and work. As Aibileen raises the children of her white employers, she lives in fear of the day they grow up and realise she is coloured. Minny is too mouthy to keep a job for long, and lives in fear of a violent, drunken husband.
As the story unfolded, I found myself wondering if there was something of Kathryn Stockett in the character of Skeeter Phelan. Some people have also identified characters in the story with Stockett’s family and friends. There was even a court case over whether Abileen in the story was really Abilene Cooper, an actress known to Stockett.
At the end of the book, Stockett tells a little of her story. She describes the relations in her home between the family and the black maid Demetrie, and admits to an ambivalent attitude towards her home state and her novel. She also admits to taking some liberties with chronology and some of the laws of the time. This has led to some criticism, though John Grisham makes the same admission in his novel The Appeal and receivespraise.
The Help has also caused controversy in the United States for an allegedly shallow and stereotyped view of the character of negroes in 1960s Mississippi. One blog (http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/) is dedicated to finding fault with the book. It’s true there are some factual errors of history in the book (some have been corrected in electronic versions). And the male characters receive very scant treatment.
But Stockett makes it clear this book is not an essay on racial segregation, it is fiction. And she admits it is a white woman’s poor attempt to tell the story of the time from a black maid’s perspective – a kind of homage to Demetrie.
Setting aside the controversy, and taking the book as it’s author intended, The Help is an enthralling story of three unlikely friends finding their own way out of a difficult situation. I thoroughly recommend it.