Published in 2009, The Help tells the story of three women who work together to challenge the racial status quo of their day. In Jackson Mississippi in the 1960s, aspiring writer Skeeter Phelan gets a dangerous idea: to write a book about what it's really like to be a black maid working for a white family. She enlists the help of Aibileen Clark (a warm, wise black woman with a tragic past) and Minny Jackson (a sharp-tongued maid with a terrible secret) to assist her in this task.
Author Kathryn Stockett drew inspiration for The Help (which is her first novel) from her close relationship with her childhood maid, Demetrie. Despite the fact that Demetrie spent so much of her time taking care of the children, Stockett knew very little about her personal life and decided to fill that gap by writing in Demetrie's voice. Demetrie eventually became the character of Aibileen, and Stockett slowly developed the plot for the book.
Stockett had a great deal of trouble in bringing her book to print; over sixty literary agents rejected the manuscript. However, The Help has been a resounding commercial success; often described as a "sleeper hit," it has spent two years on the New York Times Bestseller list and sold over five million copies.
Stockett received high praise for her well-developed characters and portrayal of complex social relationships. However, some African-American groups have argued that The Help actually exacerbates racism by making the black female characters subordinate to the white main character, Skeeter. Ablene Cooper, a maid who worked for Stockett's brother, sued Stockett for using her life story without permission. However, a Hinds County judge dismissed the case, arguing that the statute of limitations had already passed.
A film based on the novel, directed by Tate Taylor and starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone, was released in 2011. The film garnered a number of Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress.