The backstory is cringeworthy: A young, white first-time author inspired by her own childhood relationship with her family maid in Jackson, Miss. sets out to write a novel from the point of view of black maids in the midst of the civil rights era. Kathryn Stockett's debut novel, The Help, could have turned out goofily earnest or shamefully offensive. Instead, it's graceful and real, a compulsively readable story of three women who watch the Mississippi ground shifting beneath their feet as the words of men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Dylan pervade their genteel town.
And what women Stockett has conjured up. In a shrewd move, one of her characters is like the author's '60s-era doppelgänger. Skeeter, a white Ole Miss graduate whose mother frets over her daughter's frizzy hair and ringless wedding finger, wants to write something with more substance than her piddly housecleaning-advice column at the Jackson Journal. Buoyed by a chance conversation with a steely New York book editor, she decides to anonymously record the experiences of black maids, paid to raise and nurture other people's children while their employers insist they use a separate bathroom preferably one outside the house. ''Everyone knows how we white people feel [about] the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family,'' Skeeter tells her editor. ''But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it.''
If Skeeter is one to root for, the muscle and heart of the book belong to the maids Aibileen and Minny, tough, funny, vulnerable, conflicted women who know they are risking everything by sharing their stories with a skinny, naive white woman. Stockett jumps effortlessly between her women's voices. She has created a world of memorable supporting characters from the bitch in the Junior League to Skeeter's oilman suitor to surround them. When folks at your book club wonder what to read next month, go on and pitch this wholly satisfying novel with confidence. A–