Told in various different voices, mainly those of the black help to the elite cream of white society in Jackson, Mississippi during the extremely turbulent period of the sixties, this both rings true and reminds us all of the civil rights struggles so recently fought here in the US. Aibileen is maid and child minder to a young couple and their baby girl. She is still reeling from the senseless death of her son and has come to realize in a very visceral way, the value whites placed on a black man's life and death. Her anger and bitterness (very much earned, I might add) have changed her personality and also slightly what she is willing to risk in her position. Through her eyes, we first see the young white matrons and their unmarried friend Miss Skeeter and it's not a very flattering picture. But we get small glimpses that Skeeter is not quite like the others, even if she seems complicit in their casual disregard and racist attitudes.
Skeeter is freshly home from Ole Miss and still unmarried, much to the chagrin of her mother. She has bigger dreams than just settling into the same life her mother and friends are leading but she tries to not rock the boat too badly, dating when she can. As she has yet to "take" with an eligible man, she also finds herself a job writing a homemaker's advice column. Of course, as she has never kept a home, she needs help writing her replies and she turns to Aibileen for help, hoping that one day Aibileen will also feel comfortable enough to tell her what ever happened to her family's long time maid, the woman who raised her, Constantine who disappeared not long before Skeeter graduated and came home. Through her connection to Aibileen and with her own ambitions, Skeeter starts writing a social history of the help, those black women who work for the local white families. She captures the good and the bad of Aibileen's experience and then moves on to other willing participants with Aibileen's help.
Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is the third narrator in the novel. She has been fired and falsely accused of stealing by the daughter of her last employer and is only hired by a woman who is so new and so far beyond the pale of polite society than she has no idea of Minny's reputation. Minny comes to be oddly protective of her seemingly indolent mistress, Celia. She tries to maintain a "proper" distance, foiled at every turn because Celia, of poor white stock who has unwittingly married into the upper crust, has no concept of where those boundaries are and is starved for kindness and friendship. Minny becomes the second maid willing to help Skeeter with her book, despite the fraught times and danger of being identified as having contributed to this rather damning piece of writing.
Stockett has created credible, very real characters here. They are sympathetic and yet flawed. None of them are too good to be true and none of them have the sorts of flaws that are really only assets in disguise. These could be real people in the 60's in Mississippi. The various plot threads wind together nicely, weaving around the main plot carefully. The tension builds as Skeeter's book forms and anxiety over whether she has done these women a disservice, laying them open to recognition increases as the pages turn. The black community too becomes more and more tightly wound as the narrative goes along and Stockett has done a great job showing that the greater civil rights movement, the murders, the disappearances and the injustices, is a cause of this as much as the incendiary book Skeeter is compiling with their compliance. The revelation of the book and the protections surrounding it are masterful and while the book's completion is not the end of the book, it certainly could be as the rest of the novel has a sort of epilogue feel to it. But even if it is an epilogue, Stockett wisely leaves some threads untied and the potential for disaster, so prevalent at the time, intact. This was certainly worth the buzz it earned last year, a quick, engrossing read, despite the length of the book. Book clubs whish haven't already done it will love it and have much to talk about. Lone readers will also devour it, taken back to a time in our recent past that we tend to want to forget. Stockett has brought not only the time but the everyday reality of it to the forefront of our memories again, for which we can only thank her.