Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, The Help by Kathryn Stockett talks about racial segregation at its worst. The book is narrated by three very different women; Aibileen, a black maid who is raising her 'seventeenth white child', Minny, another black maid unable to keep a job due to her loud mouth and hot head, and Miss Skeeter, a white woman who wants to be a writer. She, like most white children, has been brought up by black maids, and embarks on a perilous journey, fuelled by her search to find out why her much-loved maid, Constantine, has disappeared.
As far as the title goes, the help are the women of the black community who raise the children of white families. While their own children are raised by someone else, the help spend their time feeding, cleaning and playing with the white children, only to watch them grow up to be as discriminating as their parents.
Aibileen is one of the sweetest characters in the book. Although she is still mourning the recent death of her son, her affection for Mae Mobley is unwavering and she dedicates most of her time to increase Mae's confidence and raise her like the past seventeen white children she has worked for.
Miss Skeeter plays the female protagonist who, after studying literature and journalism in college, wants to be a writer. When given the chance of having her work published, she has the idea of writing a book about the dreadful life that the help lead. Including Aibileen and Minny, thirteen maids reveal the cruel and unbelievable experiences they have faced whilst working for the people who discriminate against them. These voices had never been heard before in print. In 1962, during the hazardous time of several assassinations, this was not only a major risk, since if any of the white ladies found out their help had been exposing them they would have fired them on the spot, but also illegal in Mississippi, since it violates the infamous Jim Crow segregation laws.
Stockett, being a Southern-born white woman herself, succeeds in being able to cross racial, social and chronological barriers by portraying the characters seamlessly, especially mastering the dialect of the black maids with dialogues such as “Law have mercy” and “I'm on do it”. One of the characters that she captures, Miss Hilly, who is one of the white bosses, campaigns to have extra toilets for the help because they carry many diseases. Although not as severe, I could relate this to most Bangladeshi households, which have a servants' toilet that the guests or the home-owners don't use.
I commend Stockett's courage in writing about such a sensitive topic. She encourages female writers to type their minds even in times that forces otherwise, through her image of Skeeter and has portrayed the help as superheroes with white maids' uniforms instead of capes. We're reminded that small acts of defiance and courage have their own way of working change.
Kathryn Stockett manages to merge fact and fiction perfectly, exploring a myriad of emotions ranging from sadness to happiness - sometimes all in the same paragraph! Stockett has not only written an unforgettable story, it is also an informative masterpiece. If you're looking for a good novel set in an important historical era, I definitely recommend The Help to you.