Two years after Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel ‘The Help’ hit The New York Times’ bestseller list, the wait list for the book is months long at Chicagoland libraries, including Lake County Public Library in northwest Indiana, where three dozen copies of the book are in circulation. It’s a novel that would make an excellent holiday gift for adult women as well as teen girls who are drawn to books like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and enjoy contemporary women’s fiction, and can be found in paperback or loaded onto an e-reader such as Kindle or Nook.
‘The Help’ is both heartbreaking and full of hope, with scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny and others with the power to make readers squirm with their emotional truth. Three women in late 1960s Jackson, Miss., form an unlikely collaboration to write a book about the experiences that maids in their town have had while working for white women. Skeeter, a 22-year-old college graduate, is struggling to find her place in the world and her way out of her parents’ home and the town she grew up in (“I’ve been dropped off in a place I do not belong anymore”). Aibileen, a black maid in her 50s, is trying to push past the heartbreak of losing her son as she cares for the children of a white family in town, but finds that her son’s death has changed her (“A bitter seed was planted inside a me. And I just didn’t feel so accepting anymore). And Minny is a sass-talking maid whose mouth and one “terrible awful” trick on a hateful woman in town nearly cost her the opportunity to work in that town at all, if it weren’t for the woman out in the country with whom none of the other women in town will associate.
The point of the book the women are writing is to help white women understand that the differences between them and their maids amount to little more than wealth and social status: “We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought,” Skeeter says. But when the book hits the stores in Jackson, Miss., it stirs up a firestorm of rage among the most prominent women in town, who assume the book is about them, even though the name of the author and the town where the stories take place were kept anonymous.
Soon, Skeeter, Minny, and Aibileen are grappling with the joy of seeing their hard work in print and the fear that something will happen to the people they hold close as a result of their book: “You tell those Nigras they better keep one eye over their shoulders They better watch out for what’s coming to them,” Skeeter’s former best friend, Hilly, informs her, while Minny worries about what her abusive husband will do if he finds out she was involved with the book: “I lay there grinding my teeth, wondering, worrying. Leroy, he’s onto something … He knows about the book, everybody does, just not that his wife was a part of it, thank you.”
‘The Help’ is a compelling story not only for the groundbreaking way in which Stockett, who grew up in Mississippi and cared deeply for the maid who raised her and her siblings, tries to shed light on what it must have been like to be a black maid in late 1960s Mississippi, but also for its three-dimensional characters, the way in which she captures the dialect of these characters, the multitude of scenes that are as comical as they are poignant.
Read about the author on her website, and find a recipe for the caramel cake icing that Minny is known for throughout all of Jackson.