This was one of those books that I was stealing furtive moments to read, that I was thinking about longingly whenever I wasn't reading it. Completely absorbing. But I'm still not sure if it was a guilty pleasure or a truly weighty book about race relations in the South.
The book is set in Mississippi, and it is told largely from the perspective of the "colored help" who worked in virtually middle class home in the 1950s and 60s. (It sparked a bit of controversy, because the author is an upper middle class white woman and she writes in the dialect of poor Southern blacks, but I don't see that as a major issue. She did it very believably.) It explores the power dynamics of the situation. Blacks were still economically enslaved and one wrong word or even facial expression could be financial suicide. These women spent their days polishing silver and cleaning toilets, swallowing insults and pretending to be invisible.
The book also exposes the incredible hypocrisy of the segregated South. Most whites at that time felt that blacks were too dirty and frightening to share the same restrooms, schools or restaurants. Yet, they had black people living in their homes, preparing their food and raising their children. And it explores the true love felt between some black servants and their young white charges, and the way they were often cruelly ripped apart.
I don't think this novel is great literature, because its characters feel more like stereotypes than real people. Most of the white women in the book are drawn as shallow, cold and virtually incapable of love, even for their own children. And the black women are wise and loving, uneducated but smart, the sort of noble savage cliche. But I do think it exposes some real truths about the culture of the Deep South and the legacy of racism. And a book that is fun to read and makes us think about the unbelievable way that black people were treated in this country just a few short years ago cannot be a bad thing.