Author: Kathryn Stockett, 2009.
Genre: Period Fiction. 1960s USA.Race relations.
Other Details: Paperback. 451 pages.
Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.
This début novel is told through the narrative voices of three women, two black and one white, living in Jackson, Mississippi during in the early 1960s as the winds of change in race relations begin to be felt in the South.
The first is Aibileen, a black maid raising her seventeenth white child while still coming to terms with the tragic death of her son. The next is Minnie, Aibileen's close friend, an amazing cook whose sassy attitude has tended to land her in trouble with her employers. Finally, there is Miss Skeeter, just returned home from university and confused about why her beloved Constantine, the maid who had raised her, was no longer in her family's employ. No one will talk to her about this issue. In addition, her mother is more concerned with Skeeter finding a husband than pursuing her dream of becoming a writer.
When Miss Skeeter is invited to pitch an idea to a New York publisher, she suggests a non-fiction work that will document how the black women who work as domestic help really feel about their white employers. When the idea is accepted she is then faced with the daunting task of convincing these women to come forward and tell their stories to her despite the potential danger to them all. With Aibileen as her main ally, it is this clandestine project that forms the heart of the novel.
Given the novel's subject matter there was bound to be controversy. One key issue was that Kathryn Stockett is a white woman even if like Miss Skeeter she had been raised by an African-American maid and experienced the reality of the racial divide during the period. In interviews and the novel's afterword Stockett is very honest about this point: "I'll never know what it really felt like to be in the shoes of those black women who worked in the white homes of the South during the 1960s and I hope that no one thinks I presume to know that. But I had to try. I wanted the story to be told. I hope I got some of it right." (source).
The book was chosen by one of my reading groups though sadly I was ill and missed the meeting. However, it was well received by all. It is the kind of book that is ideal for a reading group given the issues raised and next year I will be re-visiting it as it has been selected by another group I attend. It also had some personal significance as I had moved to the Southern Unites States as a teenager in the mid-1960s at the point where integration had been legislated but was still being emotionally contested. I also lived in a rather posh community where many households had 'help' even if attitudes were somewhat more liberal at that point than those depicted here.
One interesting note is the difference between the cover art for the UK and US editions. According to an interview the author gave to the BBC when promoting the book, her US publishers felt the UK cover, which is an archive photograph from the period, was too controversial and/or would put off white readers. So they opted instead for the image of three birds on a wire. The 'white-washing' or neutralising of cover art/titles is in itself a topical issue and one of the reasons the POC Challenge was conceived.
Excerpt from 'The Help' - with links to discussion questions, interview, etc.