He was a real nice Martian, Mister King.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

No, this is not a sci-fi novel. And you will have to read the book to find out which character said those words and in what context. (It has nothing to do with aliens.) It happens to be one of my favourite parts of the story, involving one of my favourite characters—a very courageous and intelligent woman. There are, in fact, several courageous, intelligent women in this novel. I think that’s what makes it such a compelling read.

The women in The Help are actually writing a book, a collection of their own personal stories about what it’s like being a southern black woman working for white people in the 1960’s. You’re a free woman, not a slave, but certainly not treated as an equal by your white employers and their friends. You can’t even use the same bathroom as white people.

I was surprised by how much I could identify with the black maids in this story. Like Minny, I take great pleasure in expressing myself through the art of cooking. (After reading about Minny’s famous caramel cake, I was thrilled to find the recipe for her special icing on the author’s website.) Like Aibileen, I love taking care of other people’s children and finding creative ways to teach them. I even used to write my prayers down on paper like she does. (When I read that, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start doing it again.) They tell their stories with humour and wisdom, and I loved how their voices, with their Mississippi accents, can be heard loud and clear. Aibileen’s voice drew me in from the very first chapter.

I could also identify with some of the white female characters: Miss Skeeter, the writer, and Miss Celia, the… um, young naïve housewife? Let’s be honest—she’s a floozy. But oh Miss Celia, my heart breaks for you! You’ve faced one of the hardest, saddest things a woman could ever face, I think. (Again, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened to poor Miss Celia.)

This wasn’t one of those books that I left sitting in the pile on my nightstand. No, I lugged this heavy hardcover around with me, reading a few paragraphs, pages, or chapters every chance I got—while waiting in the car for my husband to leave work at the end of the day, while waiting for the teakettle to boil, while eating my soup. And yes, of course, I read some more before falling asleep.

Now that I’m done reading The Help, I miss the voices of those characters. I wonder if the upcoming movie will do them justice. I’m also eager to see whether Stockett will write a second novel (this was her first). It was one of those books that I was almost sorry to finish. But I’m glad I read it.