Kathryn Stockett’s The Help had been on my to-read-at-some-point list for a while but it was not until I caught a teaser trailer for the film adaptation due out in August that it jumped to the top of my must-read-as-soon-as-possible list. A look at race relations in 1960’s Jackson Mississippi, The Help provides the reader with three perspectives that cover a range of approaches for dealing with and presenting the troubles and everyday lives of women on both sides of a color line drawn through the home.
Three women take turns narrating the events of almost two years in Jackson. Aibileen is a black maid for Elizabeth Leefolt and spends most of her time boosting the self-esteem of Miss Leefolt’s young daughter – and serving Miss Leefolt’s bridge club friends. Aibileen’s best friend and fellow maid, Minny, finds it harder to keep her opinions to herself and tends to be fired when her cooking is no longer enough to make up for her attitude. Lastly, there is Miss Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the white friend of Miss Leefolt and Jackson’ seemingly most influential white woman, Miss Hilly Holbrook.
Though Skeeter went to Ole Miss with her friends, she is the only one who stayed four years and came away with a degree and career goals instead of a husband. When Skeeter first decides to write a book from the perspective of Jackson’s colored maids, she has no idea that it will be so difficult to find willing participants or that it will change the way she looks at her world and her friends. When Aibileen and Minny first agree to participate, they can only imagine what the white community will do to them and their families, and getting fired is only where it starts.
Each of the narrators has a distinct and recognizable voice. Even without contextual indicators, the reader has little difficulty distinguishing between the three voices. Part of what makes this so easy to discern is Stockett’s mastery of dialect and accent. She manages to maintain a readability in her language without compromising by using precise English.
Stockett is able to bring a sense of humor to a novel that could easily get weighed down with the grave realities of its setting and subject matter. Letting the characters tell their stories allows for the injection of the humor that maintain the novel’s pacing and flow yet without going so far as to undermine the book’s overall message.
With an engaging story that strikes notes both humorous and poignant with perfection, only one thing bothered me while reading (and that only mildly). The timeline could be unclear, especially when moving from one narrator to the next. The jumps only become more noticeable and disorienting towards the end of the novel.
And as for the all important ending, it was realistic, subtle, and bittersweet. It wasn’t the cliché that it could have been but stayed true to the characters and their spirits.
Though The Help is only Kathryn Stockett’s first novel, I hope that there will be more to come.