“The Help,” a novel about the relationships between African-American maids and their white employers in 1960s Mississippi, has the classic elements of a crowd pleaser: it features several feisty women enmeshed in a page-turning plot, clear villains and a bit of a history lesson.
The book, a debut novel by Kathryn Stockett, also comes with a back story that is a publishing dream come true: at first rejected by nearly 50 agents, the manuscript was scooped up by an imprint of Penguin and pushed aggressively to booksellers, who fell in love with it. Since it came out in February, “The Help” has been embraced by book clubs and bloggers who can’t stop recommending it to their friends.
All of which helps explain why “The Help” — which some enthusiasts have compared to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” — has maintained a tenacious hold close to the top of several best-seller lists, despite one of the strongest seasons for big-name authors in recent memory. Amid blockbusters from the likes of Dan Brown, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell and Nicholas Sparks, Ms. Stockett has stayed within the Top 5 on The New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best-Seller list since August.
“It is running and it’s going to continue to run,” said Vivienne L. Jennings, co-owner of Rainy Day Books, an independent bookstore in Fairview, Kan.
According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, “The Help” has sold 445,000 copies in hardcover. At Barnes & Noble, the country’s largest retail bookstore chain, Sessalee Hensley, the chain’s fiction buyer, said the number of copies sold per week had grown steadily since August. “I think it’s completely word of mouth,” she said.
The publisher, Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, has delayed the publication of a paperback edition next year from February to June. “It’s really hit a nerve,” said Ms. Einhorn, whose imprint started off with “The Help” as its inaugural title. “People are passionate about this book.”
The novel features three narrators. Two are black housekeepers, Aibileen and Minny, who work for white families in Jackson; the third is Skeeter, a young white woman who aspires to be a writer and break free of the Junior League expectations of her childhood friends (one of whom employs Aibileen) and her starchy mother.
Skeeter desperately wants to impress an editor at a publishing house in New York with a book idea, and gradually persuades the maids to talk about working for white families at a time when merely telling the truth put them in enormous jeopardy.
With its intimate portrayals of the maids’ relationships with their employers and the children they care for, “The Help” appeals to readers who feel they are getting a behind-the-scenes peek into a dark period in the country’s history.Read the full story at NYT.