I just finished The Help, a novel by Kathryn Stockett. In this book, Stockett writes about the white ladies of Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960s and their "help," the black maids who raise their children and clean their homes. This book made several Best of 2009 lists and received several good reviews when it came out early last year.
I loved this book. Stockett, who grew up in the South herself and was raised by a black woman, tells the story of these maids in an interesting way. One precocious, young white woman named Skeeter decides to write down the stories of the maids in Jackson. This is no easy task, because if any of them gets caught, they're in deep, deep trouble. But many brave ladies come forward and tell Skeeter their stories of abuse and discrimination, but also of love and pride. The chapters alternate between Skeeter and two maids, Aibileen and Minny, who are vibrant characters all on their own. Once the stories get written down, it's a question of whether it will get published, and if it does, just what the heck will happen (to Skeeter, to the maids, to the community, to the country)?
The book touches on many issues in the South during that time like segregation, violence, unfair wages, the civil rights movement and more. You get a taste for the time frame with mentions of Martin Luther King and JFK. As I read, I kept thinking, 'Wow, this seems like such a long time ago.' But really it wasn't, and that's so sad. To think this was the way the country was, riddled in hatred and complete ignorance, less than 50 years ago. How pathetic and ridiculous. And with readers feeling this way, I think that's what makes the book shine. You root for these ladies, you feel disgust for the villains and it makes you want to keep reading to know how it's all going to turn out.
Like the reviews say, Stockett had to walk a fine line when writing this story. It could've come out very harsh against either side, or been completely sugary and unrealistic. She seemed to walk the line just fine, though being raised when and where I did, I can't say for sure (here's a review that asks some interesting questions, like does Stockett have a "right" to tell this side of the story?; the comments are interesting too). But ultimately, it's a novel meant to entertain readers, not necessarily tell it like it was. I got completely sucked in. I laughed and I cried a few different times at the end. I also wondered just how long it would take for Hollywood to turn this into a film. Not long at all.