After noticing The Help on The New York Times Bestseller List for several weeks running, I saw it on the library’s new books shelf and had to pick it up. It’s an easy read, but perceptive in its look at race relations between Mississippi whites and “the help” during the 1960s. The story shifts perspective often, alternating between Aibileen and Minny, two African American maids, and Miss Skeeter, a white college graduate whose mother would prefer her to become a debutante rather than follow the journalistic track she’s chosen. After being rejected from a publishing job, Skeeter sets out to write a sociological inquiry into the state of African American maids in the South. Her initial reasons for the work are self-interested, but she and the maids she interviews come to feel a great deal of ambivalence toward the project, realizing that social isolation and physical harm will become realities if it’s published even as they desperately want their stories to be told.
Sprinkled throughout the book are moments of historical significance, such as the killing of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr., and lunch counter sit-ins. These mentions are deftly interwoven into the story, functioning rather like incidental music in a film: they heighten the drama of the women’s dangerous task, and quietly remind readers of context they should already know.
In terms of the writing, Stockett is a bit heavy-handed at times with her use of dialect, especially when writing in Aibileen’s voice. Honestly, had I not agreed to write this review, I likely would have ditched the book midway through the first chapter, frustrated by substitutions of “a” for “of” and “spec” for “expect,” phrasing that would cause no difficulty when spoken but which made me stumble in printed form. Still, I’m glad I stuck with it. The dialect becomes more manageable after that point, creating a story that is touching, if mostly predictable. My only other concern regarding the book is that the real and agonizing truth of the times is rather sanitized, and Stockett takes pains to ensure that the most (often literally) painful parts of the story are told only in third person and only after the fact by switching characters at key intervals. Even Minny’s tale of the Terrible Awful (which is so gut-wrenching that The Help is worth reading just for it) is told only long after its actual occurrence.
All in all, the book is no To Kill a Mockingbird, but it holds up. Now it’s just left to be seen whether the movie version (which is scheduled to begin filming this summer and will be put out by Dreamworks) can hold a candle to this sweet and sincere novel.