‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett tells the story of Skeeter Phelan, a young white woman from Jackson, Mississippi who decides to write a book documenting the experiences of Aibileen, Minny and other black maids who work for white families. Set in the early 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, the maids are expected to look after the children, cook and clean yet they are persecuted because they are ‘colored’. It is a story that needs to be told.
I saw the film quite recently and enjoyed it but my mum said she thought the original book was better and lent it to me this week. Unsurprisingly, the film version is more saccharine than the book but the adaptation was still well done and the plot wasn’t altered too much. Moreover, watching the film beforehand and knowing how the story ends did not hinder my enjoyment of this excellent book.
After tackling ‘Wolf Hall’ last week, ‘The Help’ felt like a breeze to read. Stockett has constructed her characters and their alternating viewpoints with exceptional skill and successfully avoids being too sentimental and mawkish over the still-sensitive issue of racism in the Southern states. The story is mostly well paced and convincingly structured but Stockett’s real strength lies in her ability to perfectly balance anger and optimism when dealing with such an emotional topic. In spite of the highly improbable scenario of the maids agreeing to tell their stories about working for white families to Skeeter in such dangerous circumstances, everything from her description of the setting of the Deep South in the 1960s to the voices of each of the characters feels effortlessly authentic. This is probably thanks to Stockett’s own experiences growing up in Mississippi and her close relationship with her family’s maid which she movingly describes in the postscript of the novel.
‘The Help’ is both poignant and humorous in equal measure and offers the reader an insightful view of life in Mississippi at that time. Well worth a read.