There's much to relish about "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett, a book about black maids in the early 1960s and their relationships with the Southern families they serve.

From the first page, Stockett engages you with her marvelous characters, offering a nostalgic look back at a time fraught with racial unrest.

"The Help" is told in chapters that alternate between two of the maids, Aibileen and Minny, and by Miss Skeeter, a recent college graduate who aspires to write a book about domestic servants hoping to increase the awareness of how they're treated.

Aibileen has raised the babies of white families for decades. Currently, she's attending to a little girl, taking better care of her than her own mother does. Minny is Aibileen's best friend, a maid who can't hold a job because of her sassy mouth.

Married to an abusive alcoholic, Minny's out of work again. This time she's accused of stealing some silver pieces from Hilly, the ringleader of a group of society gals, and Skeeter's best friend.

Hilly, Skeeter and the other League ladies play bridge, tennis and sponsor fundraisers for poor African children. Much to her mother's dismay, Skeeter's never fit the Southern belle mode - she's too tall and appreciates more meaningful conversation than talk about the best punch recipe.

Skeeter develops empathy for the black women she talks to in a series of secret interviews with the maids. It isn't long before her stand on racial issues alienates her from everyone she knows.

"The Help" is heartfelt and humorous, but after a languorous, captivating 300 plus pages, a misstep by Minnie seems extreme and spoils the book, which rushes to a too tidy conclusion.

Still, this entry into the Southern genre remains strong and will have readers anxiously awaiting Stockett's next novel.