The Help is the story of Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. It's a place where segregation is very, very institutionalized--practically everything in everyday life is dictated by it. The story follows a relatively small cast of mostly female characters, some of them white, proper society ladies and some of them their black home help. The meat of the book begins when Miss Hilly Hollbrook, a particularly evil brand of society belle, announces her proposed legislation--the Home Help Sanitation Initiative. In other words, she wants for every white household to have a separate, outdoor bathroom for their black help for "sanitation" reasons (the trailer for the forthcoming film version of the book tells you as much). We see this development through the eyes of Aibileen and Minny, two longtime black maids in Jackson, and Skeeter, a white society girl who doesn't feel she can support this type of society. The result is a secretive plan to publish a book from the perspective of the help--written anonymously by Skeeter and filled with the stories of Aibileen, Minny, and many of their friends. It's a dangerous task to undertake, but they feel it is necessary.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the book--it's well-written, interesting, thought-provoking, etc.--the potential for exploitation makes me ultimately unsure of how I feel about it. What does it mean that a white author wrote a book that is told from black women's perspectives, some of it in dialect, for more than half of the narration? What about this bit about a lawsuit brought against the author for unpermitted appropriation of character? One of the great book group discussion points for this book is whether Skeeter exploited the maids by writing their stories; has Stockett done a similar thing? I guess these considerations are part of what makes the book so popular among book discussion groups.
I would suggest this book to readers who enjoy reading a single story from various characters' perspectives; who are interested in fictional accounts of mid-1900s race relations in the American South; and specifically to those who plan on seeing the movie when it comes out in August. Always read the book first!