I finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett today. I understand why it is a best seller. I give it an 8. This is a bit surprising as The Help is Ms. Stockett’s first published novel. It usually takes a few books for an author to get this good.
The story takes place at the beginning of the civil rights movement. A white woman with aspirations of becoming a journalist, and the unlikely name of Skeeter, begins chronicling the lives of thirteen black maids in Jackson, Mississippi.
Getting the maids to share the stories of their lives and interactions with the white families for whom they work is not an easy job. At that time in Mississippi, a black person could be jailed, maimed or killed simply for using the wrong rest room.
These maids sharing stories - good, bad and indifferent – about white employers is a sure way for them to lose their current job and ensure they will never be hired for another. Vindictive white employers could not only fire a maid and refuse a reference, but also arrange for spouses and children of those maids to lose their jobs or have their families evicted from their homes. The only recourse was through a white run police and court system that was completely stacked against them.
Telling their stories was an enormous risk. But this was the dawn of a new age, and with assurances that all names and places would be disguised, this small group told their tales to Skeeter. While the writing was being done, the relationship between Skeeter and her two main “informants”, Aibelene and Missy, moves from stiff, uncomfortable and suspicious to actual friendships. While these friendships are forming, the tension is building. If anyone discovers what they are doing, things will not go well for any of the women – black or white.
Skeeter eventually gets a publisher in New York to agree to publish the book. There is great rejoicing and greater fear. As the stories are read by the people about whom they are written, recognition starts to dawn. There are consequences for having broken the unwritten rules of the South. Most, but surprisingly, not all the consequences are bad ones.
The story ends with Skeeter being offered a job in New York. Her new friends encourage her to go, though she is hesitant to leave them there to bear the consequences of the book without her. And life goes on.