The Help was certainly the surprise bestseller of 2009; more than a year later Kathryn Stockett's debut novel is so popular that the hardback version remains on the New York Times Bestseller List. On the surface it would seem to be an unlikely hit; even the plot description on the inside flap of the dust jacket sounds suspiciously like a "chick book." However, The Help is so much more than that.
The novel is the story of a small group of young white women and the African-American maids in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. It would have been easy for Stockett to choose an extreme and write a romanticized antebellum-type novel like Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind or a hard-line civil rights story along the lines of Mississippi Burning. Fortunately, she does both, and neither.
The first thing that sets this book apart is that the characters, both black and white, are drawn as creatures of their time, with as little of our 21st century hindsight layered on as possible. They wrestle with (and against) the ideas of civil rights, but not in a vacuum; it happens in the midst of their everyday lives while they raise children, go to church, hold down jobs, deal with husbands (both good and bad), and endure gossiping cliques. Men play a very secondary role in this story, but that is hardly even noticeable once the book has hooked you.
The three main characters are Skeeter, a white girl in her early twenties who wants to write a book from the perspective of the black maids, a project that meets with much more resistance from the maids themselves than Skeeter imagined; Aibileen, the maid who most supports Skeeter and recruits others to the project but whose main concern is the white children she cares for; and Minny, a maid who, while the most vocal and rebellious is also the most reluctant to tell her story to Skeeter.
Stockett uses a style in The Help that can easily lose a reader if not done well: she tells the story from the viewpoint of the three main characters, usually in alternating chapters. Fortunately she does a fine job with this device, and is able to move the narrative along at a fast pace while still showing multiple points of view. She also writes in a Mississippi vernacular when the maids are speaking, which takes a little getting used to, but in the end helps us easily identify the speaker simply by their unique voice.
For all its civil rights aspects, however, The Help is more of a story about women than race. It is the story of the many layers and levels of the relationships between these women, with each other, their children, their husbands, their community, and their times. It is rarely preachy and is always compelling. Best of all, it is a story you think about and talk about long after the book is finished, which is a feat all good novels aspire to but few achieve.