A group of teachers at my work decided that we should do a semi-book club toward the end of the year, so that we'd have an excuse to get together for a party in the beginning of the summer. One of the ladies had heard some great things about Kathryn Stockett's debut novel, The Help and so we settled on that. I finished it today, after finally exorcising the non-fiction from my waiting list, and I have to say: it was a pretty darn good book.
The story is split in narration between three characters: Skeeter Phelan, a young, white woman, just returning to Jackson, Mississippi from college; Minny, a middle-aged, black maid, with many children and a drunk for a husband; and Aibileen, an older, black maid whose (pretty well-grown) son just recently died. As Stockett is a white woman, obviously, this narration can come off a bit tricky, as she acknowledges in a superbly blunt section at the end of the novel. The first chapter jumps right into the vernacular of a black maid from the 1960s and, admittedly, it's jarring at first. (At least it was for me.) But readers are able to make transitions quickly, and the novel does a good job of pulling the reader in. Clearly, to me, the character we relate to the most is Skeeter. (This could, obviously, change for other readers, but was definitely the case for me.) Skeeter is young, educated and full of hope that her ideas can make an impact on the world, much like most college graduates. (The more things change...) However, coming back home, she resigns herself to living with her parents, because she couldn't get the prestigious jobs she aimed for directly out of school, and she finds that the changes she wants, both in the world and for herself, are much slower to come than she ever thought. A big portion of the book is dedicated to Skeeter not having a boyfriend and the social price that she pays for this, which was surprising to me, given that we're dealing with the '60s and the struggle for African-American civil rights, not the suffragette movement. This is not a complaint, at all. The desire to get married, to find the right partner, never came off as inauthentic, but it was a surprise to me.
Skeeter find hope in the form of a semi-mentor, who takes time to personally respond to Skeeter's application, by way of a condescending and simultaneously hope-endowing letter, urging Skeeter to find something unique to write about, and spend time learning how to actually write. To this end, Skeeter applies for a job at the newspaper that she knows nothing about - the advice column on how to clean houses and the various things inside them. When she realizes that she knows nothing about this, she asks one of her friend's maids if she would share some advice for the column and a relationship begins.
Eventually, Skeeter comes up with the idea to write a book about the relationships between the black maids and the white families that employ them. Although this does, toward the end of the novel, mean that things take a turn toward the (almost ridiculous) self-referential, I feel that the novel is still able to treat its subject matter with the appropriate gravitas mainly because of the switch in narration. Whereas the book that Skeeter is writing focuses on interviews with the help, we get to experience their everyday occupations via first-person immediacy. Minny and Aibileen are not merely giving interviews to us, as readers - we are experiencing the minutiae of their lives in a way that is not boring and helps to refocus the energy of the story.
As the story progresses, we see temporal clues that help those of us who didn't grow up in Mississippi (or even though this time period at all) - the rise of JFK and Martin Luther King. References to Rosa Parks, the NAACP, the emergence of hippies, and the race to the moon. These things help with the frame of reference for the overall mood and pace of America, which is the macrocosm to Jackson's micro.
The Help tells a great story of the struggle to begin the interviews, with so much distrust on each side, and the constant battle to maintain the fragile balance the characters build. There are great minor characters who I would have loved to hear more about (Miss Celia and Johnny Foote are the two that spring most quickly to mind, although Louvenia and Miss Lou Anne really ratchet up a few notches toward the end of the novel) but I suppose that's why they call them minor characters. The book's ending ties together the three central characters in a way that I did not honestly expect, but I thought that it was about as close as they could ever really come, in hindsight. A solid debut novel, a high recommendation.