The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (Amy Einhorn Books, $24.95)
This is a beautiful novel, and the timing of it's release couldn't be more perfect.
Skeeter Phelan has returned to her family home in Jackson, but even with a degree in 1962, her mother urges her to get a teller job at the bank so she can meet a nice young man and get married.
Mrs. Charlotte Phelan's Guide to Husband Hunting, Rule Number One: a pretty, petite girl should accentuate with makeup and good posture. A tall, plain one with a trust fund.
I was five-foot-eleven but I had twenty-five thousand cotton dollars in my name and if the beauty in that was not apparent then, by God, he wasn't smart enough to be in the family anyway.
Skeeter is growing impatient with the town, her friends in the Junior League and lack of any meaningful job for a woman. She breaks with the Junior League over Miss Hilly Holbrook's championing of separate colored restrooms in private residences for hygenic reasons. Constantine, the black maid who raised her, and her sole comfort is no longer working for their house and no-one can tell Skeeter where she has gone. In her desperation she contacts a New York publisher seeking a job. When a senior editor at Harper & Collins advises her to take an entry level position at her local newspaper, the newspaper editor initially wants to brush her off, but then remembers he needs someone to write the domestic advice column. Skeeter gladly takes the job, even though she's never polished the silverware or done the laundry. To get the advice she needs to write the column, she turns to Aibileen, her friend Miss Leefolt's maid.
Miss Skeeter moves her eyes back to the window, on Miss Hilly's Buick. She shakes her head, just a little. "Aibileen, that talk in there... Hilly's talk, I mean..."
I pick up a coffee cup, start drying it real good with my cloth.
"Do you ever wish you could... change things?" she asks.
And I can't help myself. I look at her head on. Cause that's one a the stupidest questions I ever heard. She got a confused, disgusted look on her face, like she done salted her coffee instead a sugared it.
I turn back to my washing, so she don't see me rolling my eyes. "Oh no, ma'am, everthing's fine."
Aibileen hesitantly agrees to help her, and this begins their discussion of the white women and the colored women who clean their houses and raise and love their babies. Skeeter contacts the NYC editor again, who has been keeping an eye on the growing civil rights movement in the South. She agrees to read a manuscript by this persistent Southerner. Largely unnoticed by Skeeter and her crowd, but very much in the minds of the maids of Jackson, local events escalate to a boiling point.
Skeeter and Aibileen convince 12 maids to share their stories, and here is where your heart will break. They change the names of course, and the author will be listed as Anonymous, in an unnamed town, but still the confidants are worried. And justifiably so, as events escalate in town. Finally, Minny offers to include her story of her last day working for Miss Hilly's mother. She knows if she tells the story of the pie she baked that day, Miss Hilly would not tolerate the implication that the book takes place in Jackson and that she is the butt of that joke. The maids have good reason to fear for their own safety if their identities become known.
The book is published and the ensuing scramble is grand. The maids nervously watch the bookmarks in their employers' books to see if they've read "their" chapter yet. When a local television show declares the book set in Jackson, Miss Hilly must pull out all the stops in her deniability campaign.
This is a beautiful story so well told. You'll pick up bits of history in the back ground, and the author points out the liberties she's taken in an afterword (having Shake-n-Bake introduced in 1962 gives Minny a good monologue).
This Indie First Pick can be found at your favorite independent bookstore. Book orders can be placed 24 hours a day at Jackson Street Books. If you are lucky enough to be in AL,GA, LA, or CA, check the schedule and go to one of her readings. Some of the signings will feature a special appearance by actress Octavia Spencer, who will be reading the part of Minny , here's an audio link to listen to a selection.