The Help Summary

Kathryn Stockett

The Help

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The Help Summary

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The Help is a 2009 novel by American novelist Kathryn Stockett. Set during the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, it focuses on the lives of black maids working in white households during the earliest days of the civil rights movement. Praised for its unflinching depiction of the lives of these women combined with a pointed sense of humor, The Help went on to be a massive best-seller, selling over five million copies and spending more than a hundred weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. A film adaptation, directed by Stockett’s childhood friend Tate Taylor and starring Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, and Octavia Spencer, was nominated for all three performances as well as Best Picture. Exploring themes of racism and the tight bonds that form among oppressed people under those conditions, The Help has become one of the most popular modern novels dealing with the experiences of black Americans in the south.

The Help is told from a first-person perspective split between three women. Aibileen Clark is an older maid who is returning to work since her twenty-four-year-old son Treelore died in a work accident, and she works for the Leefolt household caring for their toddler, Mae Mobley. Minny Jackson, Aibileen’s friend, is an outspoken woman who has been fired from nineteen jobs, and currently works for Mrs. Walters, the mother of the book’s villain Hilly Holbrook. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is a young woman from a rich family that employs lots of African-American workers. She recently graduated from the University of Mississippi. She wants to become a writer, but her mother would rather she settle down and get married. Skeeter is curious about the disappearance of the maid who essentially raised her, Constantine. Constantine had written to her in college telling her she has a surprise for her, but Skeeter’s mother now says Constantine quit and won’t give her any additional information.

While trying to unravel her friend’s disappearance, Skeeter starts to realize that the black maids in Jackson are treated rather poorly, and decides that she wants to reveal the truth in her first book. Although she gets a publisher on board quickly, the maids – including Aibileen and Minny – are hesitant to speak to her, because a black woman speaking out in the South in the early 1960s could be very dangerous. Minny is soon let go from her job at Mrs. Walters’ and starts working for a woman named Celia Foote. Skeeter rejoins her friends at their weekly Bridge game at Elizabeth Leefolt’s house, and Hilly asks her to place an advertisement in the Junior League’s newsletter advocating for people to install a separate toilet for black workers. Although Skeeter is offended by this suggestion, she doesn’t say anything and instead approaches Aibilene and asks if she would like to help her change things in Jackson. The two develop a friendship with Aibileen helping Skeeter ghost-write a household tips column for the local paper, as Skeeter plans to rise through the ranks of the paper so she can tell her story.

While Aibileen and Minny agree to help Skeeter, most of the other maids in the town are unwilling to help, fearing reprisals. Skeeter starts to become more and more outspoken about her distaste for the racial order in the town, which leads many of her friends to begin shunning her. Tension in the town begins to rise when one of Hilly’s maids, Yule May, asks Hilly for a loan to pay for her sons’ college tuitions. When Hilly refuses, Yule May steals one of her rings and is caught. She’s arrested, and the anger over this leads many of the other maids to decide it’s worth taking the risk to tell their stories if it could create change.

Together, Skeeter and the maids work together on a collection of true stories about how the “help” in Jackson actually lives. Some stories in the book show beautiful, generous employers, but others show cruel, brutal, and racist people acting not much differently from the slave-owners of old. In the course of the project, Skeeter, who grew up in privilege, begins to better understand the lives of the women who surrounded her all her life. The book is released, and the exposure of the town’s dirty laundry has a major impact on the way the people of the town are seen and the way they interact with their maids. Emboldened by her experiences, Skeeter is able to confront her mother about Constantine’s disappearance, and finds out that her mother fired Constantine to save face after an incident involving Constantine’s daughter. She always regretted it, but Constantine passed away before she could hire her back.

The Help is the debut novel of Kathryn Stockett, who worked in magazine publishing prior to her writing career. Many of the events in the story are based on her own life and her friendship with an African-American maid when she was growing up. She grew up in Jackson, Mississippi – the setting of the novel. She currently lives in New York with her daughter.