I first heard about The Help soon after it was published in February.
But it's 444 pages. I put it off.
Very quickly, it became the #3 fiction bestseller.
Twenty-eight weeks later, it's still holding on, a remarkable achievement for a book by a first-time novelist. The line on "The Help" is that it's the must-read choice of every book club in the country, the worthy successor to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. True, but that's insufficient praise --- if you remove veteran superstars Dan Brown (#1) and Michael Connelly (#2), Kathryn Stockett's debut is this year's fiction champion.
What is the big attraction?
"The Help" is about something.
That is, something real. Something that matters. Most of all, something that matters to women, who are, as it happens, America's most dedicated readers.
"The Help" is so much a book for women it all but carries a consumer warning: MEN, KEEP OUT. All the main characters are female --- young white Southern women and their African-American maids, And in Stockett's version of Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962, there is no relationship more complicated, more delicate, more fraught.
The white women are, in the main, graduates of the University of Mississippi, where, it seems, they mostly learned how to get married the week after they graduate. They return to Jackson in triumph, squeeze out a baby, and promptly turn their offspring over to African-American women to raise while they join the Junior League and devote their energies to such worthy projects as fundraisers for the "Poor Starving Children of Africa."
The African-American maids are, by temperament, maternal and big-hearted. They bathe her surrogate children in love until it's time for the kids to go to school and unlearn the lessons of their early years so they can carry on the Southern tradition of first and second-class citizenship based on race.
You and I know --- as the characters in "The Help" don't --- that just as the African-American maids were, in essence, untethered slaves, their white employers were also unfree. Theirs, however, was a rich, cosseted prison, which depended on an irrational, unearned superiority. So they'd scoff at the very idea of white woman as slaves --- why, God intended for their husbands to make the big decisions and for them to use their intellects at a bridge table.
In 1962, a few things happen to change all that.
First, Eugenia Skeeter Phelan graduates from Ole Miss without a husband or even a prospect. Instead, she has a quirky dream --- she'll be a writer. And she gets a starter job at the Jackson paper, writing a household advice column. She knows nothing about housekeeping; she arranges to interview maids for that information.
Second, Hilly Holbrook, the Junior Leagurer most in need of a proctologist, decides that black maids "carry different kinds of diseases than we do" and really ought to use separate and very unequal bathrooms in their employers' homes. And she makes that into a Junior League project.
Third, something has broken inside Aibileen, a maid now looking after her 17th white child. She's not as mouthy as her best friend, Minny, but her fuse is shortening. Trouble lies ahead.
Trouble comes in the form of the emerging civil rights movement, a random conversation with a book editor in New York her idea that there's a book in Skeeter's conversations with African American maids. Innocently, Skeeter tries to set up interviews with a dozen of "the help." It's a dangerous project; in Mississippi, white women were supposed to keep their distance from blacks, and black women knew better than to share what they saw in their employers' homes. So the book project is more than sufficient trouble to drive a plot that has millions of readers cheering Sketeter's audacity and admiring the maids' courage.
They're not wrong --- this book is the most satisfying commercial project I've read in years. It's 50 pages too long; most readers could stand it longer. The black Southern dialect will someday seem mawkish; today, it still sounds right. The maids are long-suffering, delightful, spicy; they're a dream team of strength, wisdom and compassion. The white women --- and this is the novel's big achievement --- are small-minded and pitiable, but they're never cartoon villains. And the men are in the background; there's no messy sex to distract readers
Smartest of all, Stockett has downplayed the horror that was Mississippi in l962. Back then, it wasn't just Medgar Evans shot in the back outside his home, it was the leaders of state government defining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as ''Niggers, Alligators, Apes, Coons and Possums." And more, and worse.
In 1989, I went to Mississippi to report a story for the New York Times Magazine about the 25th anniversary of the murders of civil rights martyrs Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney. During my research, I met a woman who had been a maid in the 1960s. From my story:
Polly Heidelberg, now ''way up over 60,'' was born into a family in which education for girls was an economic impossibility. She went to work young, taking care of a white household for $8 a week. At some point in a past about which she's resolutely nonspecific, she married a railroad porter who introduced her to Roy Wilkins and James Farmer. But she didn't become an activist, she told me, until January 1964. ''I was a slave until I met Mickey Schwerner,'' she emphasized, as we sat on the porch of her home in Meridian. ''And when I met him, I didn't understand a word he said. But I began to feel free. I asked him if I could work with him at his school. He said, 'Are you from here?' I said, 'No, I'm from everywhere.' He laughed. 'Then you be a good friend of mine,' he said, and we started a family relationship."
''I brought food and clothes to Mickey and Rita. And I'd go to school. Sometimes I'd say, 'I'm tired, I can't do this.' Mickey would say, 'You're doing good --- now, what are you bringing for dinner tomorrow?' And I kept at it. I remember when I learned my 25 words. Mickey jumped up."
''Political? Oh yes. I was arrested for picketing Woolworth's. Spent five days in jail. They had me ask the questions at the store because they knew I'd speak up --- see, I didn't want to be a slave anymore. The officer who took us in was so pitiful. He said, 'Big mama, I hate to arrest you.' I said, 'You go on with your job, 'cause I'm goin' on with mine.' ''
Then Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner disappeared.
''When their bodies were found, sorrow rode across Meridian like the dark covered the sun. People could not stand it. We had a church service. We all wore black skirts, but we wore white blouses and carried candles to let people know the light was still burning.''
After that desperate expression of hope, the sadness returned. ''You never saw a lady weep like Rita Schwerner when it was time for her to leave. When we were packing her things, she told us she loved us and our children. She said, 'Miss Polly, you were the light in my path.' I said, 'Rita, you were the light I held.' And we held each other and cried.''
Miss Polly is too painful, too real, for a novel like "The Help", which doesn't sugarcoat racism but keeps the guns and violence always a few miles away. Smart thinking. In popular fiction like this, riling readers with false accusations of stolen silverware works just as well.
Nine hundred of the 1,000 commentators on Amazon.com have declared "The Help" worthy of 5 stars. Their mini-reviewers are awash in tears. Some write that after they finish the look, late at night, they wake their sleeping husbands to tell them how much they love the lives they have together, and how lucky they are not to be living in Jackson in 1962.
That modest historical awareness is a start. And a beacon in the darkness of contemporary book publishing --- in a time when a vampire is the main character in a young adult novel responsible for four out of every twenty-five books sold in the first quarter of this year, "The Help" looks more and more like our To Kill a Mockingbird.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]
Follow Jesse Kornbluth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HeadButler