The Help is a novel written by Kathryn Stockett that looks at Mississippi during the politically tumultuous and racially tense times of the 1960s. On the surface, this simplistic setting sounds like the makings of your prototypical Civil Rights story in which blacks and whites overcome their fear and hatred of each other and then hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” In retrospect, The Help attempts to add depth to the American story of integration by portraying the complex relationships between black and white women behind the smokescreen of the Civil Rights movement.
At the center of Stockett’s novel is the awkward, reluctant heroine Skeeter. Skeeter is a recent graduate from Ole Miss. Although Ole Miss for the typical white southern belle is a stepping stone into aristocratic society and the domestic sphere of family and marriage, Skeeter has left college with a degree in journalism and a desire to rise above the mediocrity of her friends and make a career for herself as a writer. Skeeter’s pursuit for success leads her to write a book that taps into the tumultuous experiences of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in light of her friend Hilly’s attempts to further the holds of Jim Crow laws with a petition for white households to build separate bathrooms for their help. Ultimately, the success of the book is dependent on whether or not Jackson maids are willing to risk their livelihoods for the sake of exposing the joys and the injustices of their roles as the overlooked spines of Mississippi’s well-bred white families.
An interesting aspect of The Help is the message that beyond the boundaries of race and class women are not only equal but bonded by the universal site of family. This sisterhood can be seen as Skeeter and Aibileen, a symbol of Skeeter’s mother figure/maid, Constantine, work to liberate the maids of Jackson from the oppression of silence and resolve puzzling issues of Skeeter’s past.
For many The Help probably sounds like an overly sentimental book tailor-made for women. However this work is worth reading for the sake of enjoying the comedic gems of Minny, an honest, strong-minded by-product of “The Jefferson’s” Florence (Marla Gibbs), and Skeeter’s mother Charlotte who seems to bare a perpetual grimace as she constantly frets over Skeeter’s inability to find a suitor and become a housewife like her contemporaries. It’s also intriguing to read about imperative events of the Civil Rights era like the assassination of John F. Kennedy through the lens of the collective South, an angle that is often overlooked as being the ignorant, backwards enemy to the progressive plight of equality.
The film adaptation of The Help, directed by Tate Taylor, will be coming out in theatres August 12th. While it is evidently too soon to determine whether or not the film is a faithful interpretation of the book, after seeing a couple of the film’s trailer’s it’s evident that Taylor made great strides to maintain the novel’s overall theme of sisterhood in the face of adversity.