The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a novel about black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962. The black maids work with Skeeter Phelan, a white woman, to create a book depicting their lives. The chapters are narrated through the eyes of three main characters: Aibileen, Minnie, and Skeeter. Descriptions of historical events of the early activities of thecivil rights movement are peppered throughout the novel, as are interactions between the maids and their white employers. The novel is filled with details reminiscent of early-1960s culture in the United States: color televisions replacing black-and-white models, daytime programs with detergent and cleaning product advertisements, and the introduction of the miniskirt and rock-and-roll music add to the authenticity of the background and help make the characters' motivations believable.
Chapter 1 situates the novel in 1962 and is narrated by Aibileen, a black maid working for Mrs. Leefolt by taking care of a toddler, Mae Mobley. Aibileen loves Mae Mobley, as the reader can see by the tenderhearted way she speaks to her, and all the extra care and time she gives to her. Aibileen had a child of her own once, by the name of Treelore, who was accidentally killed at age twenty-four, in an accident at the logging mill. Aibileen shares her story of the logging incident and how she reacted afterward. She was completely devastated by her son's death until her friend Minnie helped her; and she began working with Mrs. Leefolt, taking care of Mae Mobley. This is where the reader learns why Aibileen immersed herself into caring for the child of a white woman; she transferred all her love onto her employer's children.
Aibileen meets Skeeter at Mrs. Leefolt's home, who asks her about cleaning difficult items because she (Skeeter) will be writing a newspaper column on household cleaning. She notices how respectful Skeeter is of her and feels suspicious, but she likes Skeeter and feels she can trust her. In her prayers, she mentions Skeeter. She says:
The thing is though, if I start prayin' for Miss Skeeter, I know that conversation gone continue the next time I see her. And the next..cause that's they way prayer do. It's like electricity, it keeps things going.
Aibileen is very spiritual and her beliefs have kept her hopeful throughout her difficult life. The reader can see that she is a powerful woman.
In chapters 1 and 2, the interactions between the black maids and their white employers are explored. For example, Miss Hilly sits at the head of the Junior League, which represents the high class women in Jackson; she is attempting to institute laws on separate bathrooms for blacks and whites, even in private homes. She wants to go so far as to making it a law so it would be a crime for owners to allow blacks to use white bathrooms. Skeeter thinks this is ridiculous.
Aibileen talks to her friend, Minnie, on the phone who tells her she was fired for stealing but that it is not true. She is worried she will never get another job in Jackson because of Miss Hilly's gossip. The reader can see through the character's dialog and actions how the white women have social power over the black maids by constructing hurtful gossip, to prevent the maids from gaining employment. Most of the white women use their power to control their maids, but Skeeter is different.
Chapters 3 and 4 are narrated by Minnie. She goes for a job interview at Celia Foote's home. She realizes that Celia Foote has not heard the gossip from Hilly about her stealing, so she is relieved. Mrs. Foote is very incompetent as a housekeeper and cook. She wants to hire Minnie but keeps it a secret from his husband so he thinks she is doing the work. Minnie does not like Celia's secrecy but takes the job because it pays $2.00 an hour, which is twice the salary she received at her past position.
Chapters 5 and 6 are narrated by Skeeter. Skeeter is the editor of the Junior League newsletter. She finds herself very different from the other whites her age in Jackson, especially on the civil rights issues. She thinks of the black maids as her equals and believes that the black maid who raised her, Constantine, was more like a mother.
She reminisces a lot about Constantine; it bothers her why Constantine left her household as the maid so abruptly without any explanation. She thinks often about her and even asks Aibilene why Constantine left Jackson unexpectedly. Aibileen says she was fired. Skeeter is confused because her mother told her Constantine left to join her family in Chicago. Skeeter confronts her mother. Her mother gives a lame excuse which Skeeter interprets as prejudice.
Chapter 7 is narrated by Aibileen, who is working at Mrs. Leefolt's home and taking care of Mae Mobley. She and the child are close, almost like mother and daughter. Mrs. Leefolt is strict and judgmental. Aibileen remembers her son Treelore. The anniversary of his death is that day, so she pretends to be sick so she can go home. The next day, Skeeter shows up unexpectedly at Aibileen's house on the poor side of town. She is cautious, wondering why a white woman would come to her neighborhood. Miss Skeeter asks her to help her with the book. She wants Aibileen to tell her about life as a black maid in Jackson. Aibileen politely refuses since blacks are being killed for much less on a daily basis, like using the white's toilet.
Chapters 8 and 9 are narrated by Skeeter. She tells her impressions of Aibileen's neighborhood as she approaches in her Cadillac. The neighbor's are cold and Aibileen only looks down at the ground when she is speaking. Skeeter does not realize why she is so uncomfortable. She returns to her home and receives a phone call from the publisher who likes her idea about a book on the black maids. She is excited. Then she goes to the Wednesday bridge club at Hilly's home; and she goes into the kitchen to talk to Aibileen. She offers Aibileen money in an envelope for helping her with the Miss Myrna letters on housekeeping, but Aibileen thinks it is a bribe to work on the book so she refuses. In chapter 9, it is the day of Skeeter's date. The date begins at 6 p.m. at Hilly's home but since Skeeter has not told her mother, she has to leave in regular work clothes; and she has to take her father's truck with a tractor on it. When she gets to Hilly's, her date, Stuart, has been waiting. He is drunk and sees her truck and tractor and thinks it is the funniest thing he has ever seen....
(The entire section is 2639 words.)