Set in 1960s racially-segregated Mississippi, TheHelp is the story of several woman who quietly, and effectively, rebel against the unjust situations in which they find themselves.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has just returned from college to her family’s cotton farm in Jackson, Mississippi. Instead of using her college years to find a husband, Skeeter not only graduated, but also applied for a position in New York with aspirations of being a writer. She doesn’t get the job. But she does receive a note from the female editor who encourages her to “Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it disturbs no one else.”
Inspired by this small encouragement, and by the shocking news that the family maid and the woman who raised her was let go without explanation after several decades of service, Skeeter has the idea to interview the black women of Mississippi who, like her own maid and surrogate mother, help raise the white children of the families for which they work. It’s a project that, amid the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington D.C., a time which saw Mississippi in the news frequently for violent murders and beatings of black people and “integrationists,” each woman involved was putting her very life in danger to complete.
The novel’s greatest strength lies in its genuine and convincing characters. Although the antagonist Hilly Holbrook has no redeeming qualities–she reads like the standard racist villain who, just in case the reader has any sympathy for her, is also overweight, greedy, and prone to cold sores–the other characters are a realistic blend of persons torn between the only way of life they’ve ever known and the inherent injustice of that way of life.
Stockett’s use of dialect–Law, it’s hot out there— is also genuine and expertly done. Writing dialect can be tricky, but Stockett, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, does it well enough to the point that the reader will cease to notice it after the first page or so.
The Help invites its own comparison to several other books about racial tension in the South, mentioning southern writers William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and, several times, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Time will tell if TheHelp rises to the level of these classics mentioned within its pages. For the present, it is enough that TheHelp is an engrossing, honest portrayal of 1960s Mississippi. Like a loving parent, blood-related or surrogate, The Help tells you the honest truth, yet comforts you when that truth is upsetting and reminds you that for all the evil and ignorance in the world, there is also kindness and justice and small but powerful acts of bravery.