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The Help

A young white woman decides to interview the black maids in her hometown.

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We learn much about Hilly’s evil machinations, including her “Home Help Sanitation initiative” for separate toilets “as a disease-preventative measure.” In fact, Hilly’s heinousness spurs the maids to open up to Skeeter.

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Learning exactly what “the Terrible Awful” thing Minny did to Hilly before leaving her mother’s employ is just one reason to keep turning pages in this masterfully plotted novel – though it’s questionable whether it could effectively stymy this powerfully nasty woman.

Stockett skillfully interweaves her characters’ stories, capturing their courage, fear, and pride in speaking about “How we too scared to ask for minimum wage. How nobody gets paid they Social Security.... How we love they kids when they little.... And then they turn out just like they mamas.”

She evokes an insular community in which relentless summer heat, “like a hot water bottle plopped on top of the colored neighborhood,” is another oppressor. “The Help” is anchored in reality with references to historical events, including Medgar Evers’s murder, and domestic details, including uses for Crisco that go way beyond pie crusts and fried chicken.

Stockett sustains suspense with multiple plotlines. What happened to Skeeter’s beloved maid, Constantine, who disappeared while she was away at college? Why is Minny’s new boss so listless and secretive? And, of course, will the women suffer repercussions for their project?

A native of Jackson, Stockett says she wrote “The Help” because she regrets never having asked her beloved family maid “what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family.” In an afterword, she confesses her fear of “crossing a terrible line,” especially in “writing in the voice of a black person.”

A book driven by guilt could have been mawkish, but Stockett’s ear for both outrage and humor and her earnest efforts to correct stereotypes pay off – despite her decision to convey only black voices in dialect, with nary a dropped “g” among her generally less sympathetic Southern white characters.

By addressing not just injustice but the “inexplicable love” that flourishes between servants and their employers, “The Help” arouses both admiration and indignation.

Moral righteousness at past transgressions, however, is easy. The question is whether readers will recognize the troubling power dynamic between employers and their less privileged – often immigrant – domestic help that often still exists, despite civil rights advances of the past 55 years. As Skeeter says of her inflammatory book, “please let some good come out of this.”

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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