The relationships between white middle-class women and their black maids in Jackson, Miss., circa 1962, reflect larger issues of racial upheaval in Mississippi-native Stockett’s ambitious first novel.
Still unmarried, to her mother’s dismay, recent Ole Miss graduate Skeeter returns to Jackson longing to be a serious writer. While playing bridge with her friends Hilly and Elizabeth, she asks Elizabeth’s seemingly docile maid Aibileen for housekeeping advice to fill the column she’s been hired to pen for a local paper. The two women begin what Skeeter considers a semi-friendship, but Aibileen, mourning her son’s recent death and devoted to Elizabeth’s neglected young daughter, is careful what she shares. Aibileen’s good friend Minnie, who works for Hilly’s increasingly senile mother, is less adept at playing the subservient game than Aibileen. When Hilly, an aggressively racist social climber, fires and then blackballs her for speaking too freely, Minnie’s audacious act of vengeance almost destroys her livelihood. Unlike oblivious Elizabeth and vicious Hilly, Skeeter is at the verge of enlightenment. Encouraged by a New York editor, she decides to write a book about the experience of black maids and enlists Aibileen’s help. For Skeeter the book is primarily a chance to prove herself as a writer. The stakes are much higher for the black women who put their lives on the line by telling their true stories. Although the exposé is published anonymously, the town’s social fabric is permanently torn. Stockett uses telling details to capture the era and does not shy from showing Skeeter’s dangerous naïveté. Skeeter’s narration is alive with complexity—her loyalty to her traditional Southern mother remains even after she learns why the beloved black maid who raised her has disappeared. In contrast, Stockett never truly gets inside Aibileen and Minnie’s heads (a risk the author acknowledges in her postscript). The scenes written in their voices verge on patronizing.
This genuine page-turner offers a whiff of white liberal self-congratulation that won’t hurt its appeal and probably spells big success.