I will start by saying how much I loved this book, this is going to be a very positive review. This book has quickly snuck onto my "favourite books" bookshelf.
The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960's, during the civil rights movement when there are still high racial tensions, and black workers are mainly seen as "the Help" and nothing more. The story follows Skeeter, a young white girl who has ideas to the contrary and wants to give the black women of Jackson a voice by writing their stories down for them.
Skeeter focusses her attentions upon Aibileen and Minny, two maids with extraordinary experiences, secrets and heart breaking stories to reveal about their employers, and while it takes a while for them to open up, the stories they tell are what makes this book so great.
This story is mainly about the characters, it has an interesting plot that is inspiring and invokes feelings of warmth upon completion, but the main purpose of the story is to tell you about the wonderful characters, it is their story that keeps you gripped.
Aibileen, the quiet woman devoted to the children she raises for her employers, Minny the best cook in town but who has a loud mouth, and Skeeter the white girl who goes to college and comes home without a job so by society's standards should make husband hunting her sole occupation.
The voices are very stereotypical, they have the inflections of a southern drawl and added tones which society has come to expect from that time period, and while this may offend some as it takes a little bit of getting used to, it adds to the atmosphere Stockett creates. The balance between telling us about the women's work lives and their home lives is what really keeps you hooked, how different they are, yet how similar they become when they club together to produce their side of the story. Stockett describes both the people and the scenery beautifully, and you can picture each Jackson home perfectly. The real strength of this book is its realism, you almost feel as if you can remember the events yourself.
The book also has been adapted into a film, and is well worth watching. It is as hilarious as the book and a very faithful adaptation. If you have seen the film that stemmed from this book, you may be put off reading knowing that you will already know about some of the funniest parts (especially Minny's "terrible awful") but I actually watched the film first and equally enjoyed the book. The book provides depth to the story that a 2 hour film simply cannot manage, and I would actually recommend watching the film first because it allows you to appreciate it on its own without being annoyed that wonderful scenes were cut.
The only negative that I have found with The Help, is the controversy behind it. The author, Kathryn Stockett, admits in the last few pages of the book that some of the events depicted were taken from her own experiences, and upon researching I discovered she was taken to court by the real Aibileen who had worked for Stockett's brother. The case was thrown out because of the time frame, but when I first heard of this I was a little upset, I don't doubt that she could very well have been inspiration for the novel, so to use her life experiences evidently without her permission seems to hark back to the very behaviour Stockett is dissuading in the novel.
This aside, the novel really is beautifully written, and I imagine it is these remembrances of actual occurrences that makes it feel so real to read.