This is the best book I've read in a long, long, LONG time. And that's coming from a girl who reads a lot. This incredible book is told in three separate and astoundingly clear first-person narrative voices.
The first voice belongs to Aibileen, a wise and godly black woman who is employed in a household where she is raising the child of her white employers. The little girl, Mae Mobley, is an adorable kid who seems damned to follow in the ignorant footsteps of her awful parents. That is, until Aibileen decides that she can save her; she can teach the child that black people ARE people. This is something that many of the white characters seem to have forgotten.
The novel is set in 1962, after Ms Parks decided she deserved to sit wherever she damn well pleased on that bus... but the white population of Mississippi begs to differ. Rosa parks might have convinced people that she was good enough to sit where she liked, but one of the key images of Stockett's text is that of lavatory segregation! The white housewife for whom Aibileen works has a separate toilet built so that they won't have to share a toilet! The idea that black people carry strange diseases is discussed and agreed upon by the cloistered, ignorant white housewives. This forced segregation is one of the catalysts for Aibileen's determination to make sure that little May Mobley doesn't grow up to be just like her mother.
Aibileen's is a calm voice, under which lies years of sadness, resentment, feelings of insignificance and above all, fear.
The second narrative voice is that of Minny. How I loved this woman! At first I thought that perhaps she was something of a stereotype: she's sassy, a great cook, proud, boisterous and she just can't keep a lid on her sarcasm. Her narrative cracked me up and saddened me at the same time. It's just so unfair that such a bright and vivid character sho be so subjugated by the brain-dead harem of ninnies who run the town. However, underneath all of that sass, Minny is a beaten wife with too many kids and an inability to hold down a job because of her smart mouth.
These white ladies are led by the vicious Miss Hilly, an antagonist who I thoroughly enjoyed hating. On the one hand, Miss Hilly is strong enough to be the queen of the stinging ants nest of white wives, so in that respect she's preferable to some of the snivelling "ladies" of the book. Still, I loved despising her.
The third narrative is that of Skeeter. She is a young, white college graduate who has achieved a lot for a woman of her time, but she has not achieved anything important, at least not as far as society is concerned: not as far as her mother is concerned. After all, there's no ring on her finger, is there? Skeeter's character provides a balance to the story, making it something more poignant somehow. The educated white woman is suddenly confronted with the understanding that not all is right in good ol' Mississippi. She feels trapped and this allows her to relate, if only just a little, with the black women of the town. I loved that she felt guilty about this sense of connection, knowing that she is still a privileged individual.
Instead of moping about her lot, Skeeter gets the idea to write down the stories of "The Help" of the town. The problem is, with the lynchings, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, talks of negro diseases, along with dozens and dozens of other more private horrors faced by the black women, they are too afraid to talk.
It's important to say that when the stories do start to spill out, not all of them are terrible. Plenty of the maids talk about the great kindnesses that their employers showed them. The book conveys the idea that the world in which it is set is a changing one. Not everyone is stuck in the terrible dark age of segregation or apartheid. White people aren't demonized and black people aren't deified. The villain of the text is ignorance and narrow-mindedness. The hero of the piece is the bravery of the women to break their silences and just try to make a difference.
This book is truly amazing. The only aspect which disappointed me is that it was written so recently. I wish it had been written fifty years ago because then it would truly reflect the idea of broken silences and bravery. As it stands, however, as an educated reflection on the past, it is a wonderful book. When I closed the last page, I instantly began to miss Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. I hoped and prayed that Mae Mobley would turn out good. I even missed my animosities for Miss Hilly. I'll read this one over and over. You can pretty much guarantee that this is going to be on school curricula some day, being read alongside Rees, Morrison and Angelou.
If you want an extra special treat, I whole-heartedly suggest you listen to the audiobook. Stockett's voices are truly brought to life in this medium.