Anyone interested in a factual account of the civil rights movement and the early '60s can turn to almost any history text. But, to learn more about the emotional undercurrents between black and white Americans during that volatile time, readers must turn elsewhere.
Marlena Alex, the K-8 communications associate for Milton Academy and busy mother of two, admits that while free time to read is a scare commodity between working, carpooling, and volunteering, she always values the personal reflections and insights that reading stimulates.
When several friends recommended "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett, she was eager to read it because, she says, "I had no first hand knowledge of life in the South during the early '60s, and certainly no empathetic understanding of what it must have been like for minorities during that time in our history."
"The Help" is narrated by three women who give the reader an inside view of child rearing, the Junior League, segregation, and the love-hate relationships between black maids and the white families they cared for.
Skeeter Phelan is a young, white single woman who returns to her family home in Mississippi from Ole Miss with her college degree, but not with the much coveted "Mrs." attached to her name that most of her sorority classmates so proudly display.
Idealistic and determined to become a "real" writer, Skeeter lands a small newspaper job, but secretly decides to write a book with the help of two black maids that reveals their true experience in their employers' homes.
Abilene is a gentle woman who lovingly raises the baby girl of a vain, self-absorbed white mother, even as she privately grieves the death of her own son and quietly endures her employer's indifference to her pain.
Since the age of 14, Minny, a scrappy and sarcastic maid, has followed her mother's footsteps into the kitchens and laundry rooms of white families, cooking and cleaning for them. Minny is now employed by Hilly, a white woman whose personal mission as head of the Junior League is to make sure that every household in Jackson has a separate bathroom installed for their black help as she believes they carry "dangerous diseases."
Minny has long been trained to be obedient and hold her tongue, even when called a "thief," but soon becomes a willing voice to speak out against the insults endured, when offered the chance by Skeeter.
Yet, while Skeeter is convinced of the importance of writing her book and sharing Minny and Abilene's stories with the world, she failed to consider how much is really at stake. All three women are shaken by the death of Medgar Evers and are forced to decide whether the stakes are just too high to forge ahead with the book, silently praying their jobs and lives will not be shattered by the very white women they are speaking about.
This debut novel from 2009 has become wildly successful among women, and Marlena Alex agrees fully with the acclaim.
"This is a wonderful book that not only opened up for me a whole world that most of us couldn't be more removed from, but also gave me a vivid sense of the sheer powerlessness of these black women in the face of such pervasive racism," she said.
While some have criticized Stockett, a young, Southern-born, white author, for relying so heavily on antiquated, black dialect to tell Abilene's and Minny's story, Alex feels somewhat differently.
"I also listened to 'The Help' on tape, and not only did the dialect help evoke a sense of time and place, but it also made the character's intelligence and reflectiveness all the more poignant to me, in contrast to the shallowness of the upwardly mobile women they worked for," she said.
"It is so unbelievable to me that these black women worked in their homes day in and day out and they allowed them to become privy to the most intimate areas of their lives," Alex said, "but they did not even see their maids as real human beings."
The Help is clearly a social commentary on the abuse of black women in Southern white homes during the era of Jim Crow laws. But it also attempts to communicate that white women of this era not only perceived no connection to their maids because of color, they also failed to recognize that as women, they all were powerless in the face of male dominance in the household.
"'The Help' is a good choice for any book club or any discussion group on diversity,'' Alex said, "because the book gives the reader access to a more personal, intimate look inside race relations than could ever be gleaned from most history texts."
She added: "While some readers may question whether the portrayal of the self-absorption and obliviousness of the white women characters is entirely accurate, this powerful novel certainly focuses valuable attention on a system in place at the time that was meant to force blacks into a position of inferiority."
Nancy Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org