A young white woman decides to interview the black maids in her hometown.
Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help, is about crossing lines – racial, societal, emotional – in Jackson, Miss., in 1962. It crosses your brain barrier, too, with its compulsively absorbing symphony of voices. One of her three narrators, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an aspiring writer recently graduated from “Ole Miss,” wins the attention of an abrasive New York editor with her idea to interview black maids in her hometown for a book about what it’s like to work for white women and raise their children.
Stockett makes the risks of this enterprise palpable by vividly evoking a time and place in which whites are persecuted for “integration violation” and blacks are fired or jailed for even unsubstantiated accusations of impropriety or theft, beaten and blinded for using white-only bathrooms, and murdered by the KKK for being “uppity.” The first two women who are brave and fed-up enough to sign onto Skeeter’s project share the novel’s narration.
Aibileen Clark has lovingly raised more than a dozen white children, always moving on “when the babies get too old and stop being color-blind.” Her current boss, Elizabeth Leefolt, is an old friend of Skeeter’s. But she’s an unloving mother, something Aibileen tries to make up for by indoctrinating her chubby charge: “You is kind ... you is smart. You is important.”