Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Women Helping Bring Racial Understanding in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi--Kathryn Stockett's "The Help"

Kathryn Stockett's The Help is a wonderful debut novel. The Help follows three women in Jackson, Mississippi from 1962-64--Aibileen a 50-something black woman who has worked a a maid her whole life, Minny another black maid in her 30s, and Skeeter a 22 year old white woman who has just finished college at Ole Miss and dreams of being a writer. Desperate to jump start her writing career, Skeeter comes up with an idea to capture the experiences of 12 black maids working in the homes of white women. Skeeter convinces Aibileen, the maid of her best friend Elizabeth, to work on her project. Aibileen then convinces Minny, and other maids to join in the project, despite the potentially brutal consequences if they are discovered. As the women work to complete their book on a tight timeline from a New York publisher, the racial tension heats up in Jackson. Will they be found out, or will they publish their work and show the world the unique relationship between white and black women--where they are all just people--in Jackson. 

Stockett alternates among the three main characters as narrators, giving this novel a unique story that is told from the perspective of both the white employer (Skeeter) and the black maids (Aibileen and Minny). As the three women come to understand each other you see the discovery from both perspectives, which gives the novel a deep emotional feel. The relationship that forms among these women is strong, and by the end of the novel I felt like I was one of them. Although the novel has an optimistically happy ending, I found myself crying at the end of these women's remarkable journey. 

I think this book has the potential to become a "must read" on race relations in the South, especially for young women. As someone who grew up in a big Southern family, I can say that Stockett's voice is authentic, and she does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the time. I will definitely be recommending this book.

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