By Kathryn Stockett
The Help is set in 1962 in Jackson Mississippi. The story is of the lives lived by the coloured help (mostly maids) of that day.
This is the time of Martin Luther King; change is in the wind, and these ladies watch the news with wonder and dread.
The main character, Skeeter Phelen, is not colored, but she was raised by a much loved black nanny, who left one day and never came back. Skeeter still misses her, is often hurt by her friends treatment of the maids, and believes things should change.
This is the first novel by this author and at 444 pages is a bit long, but it is a courageous story about desegregation and freedom in the Deep South.
Skeeter, the daughter of a white plantation owner, convinces the maids to tell their stories of their lives under white employers. Skeeter will publish them in a book, set in a town with a made-up name, and authoured by Anonymous. She believes that, if people realized more fully the life that their coloured staff led, they would be more grateful and caring.
The coloured women are very reluctant to “spill the beans.”
They are often sole bread winners in their families and the risk of job loss would be terrible. There are many stories told of “accidents” that happen to black people who don’t “ know their place.” What if someone recognizes them?
There are three narrators in the book: Miss Skeeter, Abilene and Minny. The two maids give us the inside view of their lives.
Minny is a girl with a lot of spunk, who has lost more than one job because she says what she thinks. This time she will be employed by Celia Rae Foote, a job that will tax her ability to hold her tongue.
Celia Rae has married above her social class and knows nothing about cooking, or running a house. Celia believes she can secretly have Minny cook and clean for her, and convince Mr. Foote that she did it all. Abilene has been a maid since she was a young girl. She cares for the children in the families she works for, but is also general help.
When the baby has grown to recognize that Abilene is black and therefore less than she is, then Abilene moves on to new employment with a new baby. Skeeter travels into the black part of town after dark to record the stories she hopes to publish. Her own social standing and the safety of the maids are at risk.
Miss Hilly Hollbrook is the social arbiter in town, she leads the plan for separate toilets for the black staff. She is a nasty character and suspicious of anyone “soft” on the negros.
When the book is published, it’s evident the stories have not been disguised enough. Miss Milly Hollbrook goes on the attack and no maid’s job is secure. Changes that had to come, included heartbreaks.
Peggy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Red Deer.