I waited almost a year for the chance to read this highly praised book. I studiously avoided the movie and conversations that might have spoilers. I finally decided that spring break was the time to put aside my professional reading and immerse myself in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. I’m glad I took the time to visit. I never lived in the South, yet reading Stockett’s first novel roused many vague memories from my early adolescence, most of them like snapshots from newspapers and TV news: tiny Ruby Bridges in her bright white dress being escorted to school, Martin Luther King speaking to thousands, sit-ins at diners, JFK’s assassination and funeral, and more.
Character development, perspective and the integral setting are the strong points of The Help. The lives and attitudes of the three main characters are slowly revealed from the perspectives of three vastly different women: genteel Skeeter, a privileged young woman fresh out of college; gentle Aibileen, an African-American house maid who has raised and loved the children of many white families; and irascible Minny, whose hot temper and uncontrolled tongue have resulted in her being fired by several of Jackson’s best families. 1960s Mississippi is clearly delineated in descriptions, conversations, thoughts, actions, and dialects that ring true. In an earlier time, these women would have existed in parallel worlds that intersected only when the help were at work in the homes of middle- and upper-class white families. Segregation and Jim Crow were widespread. Whites comforted themselves with false perceptions, smug superiority and platitudes like “Separate but equal,” while the blacks usually silently endured indignity and prejudice in their “Separate and unequal” world. But in the ’60s, “the times, they [were] a-changin’.”
Skeeter has no idea that the writing sample she submitted with her application for an editorial job with a New York publisher will grow to become a sensation that will shock and challenge her hometown. The maids she interviews for the work know exactly what they are risking by sharing their observations and behind-the-scenes stories of Jackson’s social elite. None of them expect to form a bond that will change all their lives and make them realize with Skeeter, “Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”