It took only two years for Kathryn Stockett’s first novel to be turned into a movie, so powerful is the story in The Help. Stockett, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, exposes the prejudices and ill treatment that members of Jackson’s affluent white society—in which she grew up—directed at their African American maids in the early 1960s.
The Help is a tale of courage on both sides of the color divide. It is a tale of crossing that divide at great risk to livelihood and well-being.
Aibileen and Minny are featured among the maids who endure their sorry situation—Aibileen stoically and Minny with enough sauciness to get her fired from some households. Skeeter, a white recent college graduate, wants Aibileen, Minny, and their friends to tell her their stories for publication. She intends to keep identities anonymous, but of course too-specific details would be a giveaway, and Skeeter’s being seen meeting with the black women would be cause for suspicion. So everything is done on the sly, maintaining suspense about whether one of these characters whom we come to not only admire but love might get caught and bring the rest down with her. The consequences could be ruinous not only for future employability but also for life and limb. The maids’ most despicable employer—and Skeeter’s former friend—has her suspicions that the book is set in Jackson; readers are unlikely to forget the secret that keeps her silent.
Stockett’s characterizations could be more nuanced—the rich white women are hateful, the black maids heroic—and her book has been criticized for its focus on the single brave white woman. But if the book appeals mostly to whites, they’re the ones who need their eyes opened. If reading The Help reminds us of how far society has come in the half-century since the pre–Civil Rights era, the attention the book and the subsequent movie received may indicate how far we have to go yet.
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