This is a powerful story about women's relationships with each other, and how they are affected by race (and class), told from the viewpoints of three women (two black maids and a young white woman). It is set in segregated Jackson, Mississipi, in 1962-64, at the dawn of the civil rights movement.
The first third of the book establishes the main characters and their situation and relationships; the rest of it revolves around a dangerous plan to write about their lives: it ends up reading as if it's a book about how this book was created (though the notes at the end make it clear that it isn't).
Although it might appear that the main relationships are between employer and help, mothering and displaced mothering is in many ways a stronger theme. There is an awkward pact involved: letting your children be raised by members of a race you despise versus raising the children of your oppressors. As Skeeter says, "They raise a white child and then 20 years later the child becomes the employer. It's that irony that we love them and they love us, yet we don't even allow them to use the toilet in the house". There are opportunities to sway young minds (and Aibileen tries especially hard), whilst thinking, "Baby Girl, who I know, deep down, I can't keep from turning out like her mama". The maids' jobs and colour also have a negative effect on their own mothering. Not only do some of the white children feel the help loves them more than their own mothers; in some cases they are right, and that causes other tensions and problems. Yet firing the help is not always an option: "the help always know" all the secrets.
I don't know how accurate any of it is, but it rings true to this Brit, especially the different voices through which the story is told. It was also interesting that the maids were so used to "the lines", that they disliked it when they were crossed, e.g. by an employer who was too friendly: "She just don't see 'em. The Lines. Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly". Yet the maids train their own children into subjugation by teaching the rules "for working for a white lady". This has strange effects: "I don't know what to say to her. All I know is, I ain't saying it. And I know she ain't saying what she want a say either and it's a strange thing happening here cause nobody saying nothing and we still managing to have us a conversation".
From the very first sentence, you are aware of Aibileen's voice and dialect, "on a early Sunday". She is an aging maid who cares for white children when they are young, then moves on. Her own son died in an industrial accident at 24 and from then "A bitter seed was planted inside me. And I just didn't feel so accepting any more".
Minny is the other black voice: a maid and church friend of Aibileen's, but with a young family and violent husband. She speaks her mind, so has often been fired.
The final voice is the daughter of a plantation owner who has returned from college and is shocked to discover that the beloved maid who raised her has gone, and no one will tell her why.
All three are very strong women, and each gradually finds the strength to follow her conscience, despite the personal risks, to the point where Skeeter realises "I no longer feel protected because I am white".
One expects one's strongest sympathies to be for the maids, but in some ways a couple of the white women (including Skeeter) have a harder time: material privilege, but they don't fit into either world. The little girl Aibileen cares for is also a misfit in her own home, because her mother never bonded with her, "She like one a them baby chickens that get confused and follow the ducks around instead". Aibileen tries hard to compensate, particularly by repeating the mantra "You kind, you smart, you important". Mind you, she also sows the seeds future disagreement with her parents by telling secret stories about a kind alien visitor called Martia
n Luther King who thinks all people are the same, and by wrapping identical sweets in different coloured wrappers to make the same point. "I want to stop that moment from coming - and it comes in ever white child's life - when they start to think that coloured folks ain't as good as whites."
Although the book fits with some stereotypes (e.g. the hideous contradiction of raising money for starving Africans whilst campaigning for outside loos in all white homes, lest the owners catch black diseases), it certainly confounds others, both in the minds of some of the characters and, to a lesser extent, to the readers (e.g. many of the maids are more educated than might be expected and Aibileen is an keen and excellent writer). As Skeeter says, "The dichotomy of love and disdain living side by side is what surprises me", and that is the core of the book.
A few niggles:
* My knowledge of US history is scanty and I didn't know when it was set until page 22, though even then I was only able to work it out by looking up Stevie Wonder's year of birth.
* It seems improbable that all the powerful white women in the town were only in their mid 20s. I presume that was necessary because they needed to be contemporaries of Skeeter, and she needed to be young.
* Despite being initially vague about the date, some subsequent mentions of period detail seem rather forced, e.g. "To Kill a Mockingbird", Rosa Parks and Bob Dylan. It should have been possible to mention them in a more natural way.
* Did anyone say they needed "space" and "time" away from a relationship in Mississipi in 1963?