'The Help', by Kathryn Stockett, given to me by a friend, was my holiday reading, and though it is not something I would have chosen to read for myself (a bit to 'Mockingbird-esque' for my liking, or so I thought), I was hooked from the beginning. Straight away, we hear the voice of Aibileen, a black maid and nanny, and written in the colloquial style of the Deep South, the character comes to life on the page, each sentence, each expression distinctly hers.
The story focuses around three main characters, Aibileen and Minnie, 2 black maids, and Skeeter a white young lady, who empathises with the plight of the black 'help' despite social convention and pressure of the time, and tries to expose the hardship and injustice they must endure through collaberating with them to write a book-a book, which must of course remain anonymous.
Skeeter, recently returned home to her cotton farm with a degree in English is in some ways an outsider. Her friends, bridge partners and fellow members of the Junior League are married. Most subscribe to the racist attitudes of the era, mistreating and despising the black maids, and while her attitude is clearly more generous, she comes across at times as patronising. This in fact is to her favour, as it gives her character more authenticity, and ultimately makes her more likeable.
Many of the other characters are so unabashedly awful that it's almost funny, except when remember that such 'awfulness' towards 'the help' was very real. Stockett draws the characters very well, and the dialogue is full of ironies and humour that keeps story flowing along. For example, while black maids are underpaid, overworked and are even compelled to use a separate toilet on the one hand, the League is organising a charity fundraiser for 'Poor Starving Children of Africa'. Sometimes, however, I feel Stockett can take humour to excess, compromising the veracity of the story. Examples of this was when Hilly's front lawn was filled with toilet bowls while she was away on holiday, or even the mud-pie saga...ugh!!
The best thing about this book is not the plot itself, but the dialogue, which is excellently done and through which the characters come alive, and some of the descriptions, conjuring up the sweaty, deadening heat, the smells from steaming pots of okra, which really transport you to the Jackson Mississippi in the 1960's.