The year is 1962 and the world around Jackson, Mississippi is changing much to the chagrin of many who want to keep their world the way it has been for several generations with its strict code of social status and interaction. However change is around the corner and with it is a new awareness. ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett is the examination of how the lives of privileged white women and their black maids intersect and how when the channels of communication are open it produces surprising revelations.
‘Help’ is narrated from three different perspectives. The first, Aibileen, is a maid/nanny for a mother who is extremely unhappy but does everything in her power to put up a front. The toddler of the home, Mae Mobley (I thought this was a character great name) is the apple of Aibileen’s eye, but then again all of the children Aibileen has raised have been the apples of her eye until usually the time they start school and start learning to view the world through a racist prism. However, Mae Mobley is especially dear to Aibileen since she is still recovering from the tragic death of her adult son. It is nice to find solace in a child who loves unconditionally.
The second narrator is Minny who is Aibileen’s younger friend, also a maid, and has been fired more times than she can remember for shooting off her mouth to the white folks who employ her. Through a slight deception, Aibileen finds Minny a job, but it is with a mysterious recently married young woman who apparently doesn’t know the social rules of conduct about how a white employer should present themselves with a black employee – if you haven’t guessed, she isn’t from Jacksonville.
The last narrator is Skeeter who has just graduated from Ole Miss but has failed at the larger goal of college for a southern belle; finding a husband. So she has to revert back to a life of evenings filled card games and days filled with Junior League meetings with her two best (now married) friends from back in the day; Elizabeth (who employs Aibileen) and Hilly (who used to employ Minny). She would like to be a writer but there isn’t much job opportunity for a woman in Jackson, Mississippi if they aren’t black and willing to work as a maid and those positions are precarious to the whims of their white employers.
Together these three characters participate in the writing of a book about the lives of the maids who populate the best homes in Jacksonville, Mississippi.
I found ‘Help’ to be slow reading for the first sixty to hundred pages, but then I couldn’t put it down. There is a juggling act of mysteries the women are left to discover about each other, such as what happened to Constance the maid who help raise Skeeter. She mysteriously disappeared after writing to Skeeter at college that she had a surprise for her when she returned home. Skeeter sets the ball rolling because unlike her peers she realizes that she owes much to Constance (a woman who was more of a mother to her than her own) and is both confused and sadden that no one is willing to tell her the truth besides the her mother’s obvious response, “she is no longer employed by our family.” When talk about providing separate facilities (toilets) for the help working in white homes, Skeeter realizes this talk is not only a step backwards but a ploy for her friend Hilly to be even more of a social leader in her beloved junior league.
This is Stockett’s debut novel and what it does brilliantly, in my point of view, is examine the race relations between the black and white women by not only examining the plain horrible, but also some of the good that arises in human companionship despite the barriers. Further, these barriers really only benefit a select few in the community while everyone else plays along because they are afraid of violating stated and unstated set rules – the price for infringement includes severe social isolation for whites and unemployment or massive physical impairment/death for blacks. No one really wants to go there, yet there is a feeling in the ether that if they want to change their world that is exactly where they have to go.
The criticism that has been leveled at ‘The Help’ include that it is a white woman writing with a black dialect, that there are no positive black male characters, and I suppose (although I haven’t seen this complaint, but am fairly sure that someone has said this) that the character of Aibileen falls under the category of what Spike Lee has proclaims as ‘the magic negro’– in terms of films, ‘the magical negro’ is the black character amongst a group of white characters who imparts wholesome Zen-like wisdom which makes the lives of the white characters (usually from a privileged class) better while the black character remains in humble circumstances.
I think the whole literary ‘blackface’ problem is one that has started to fade in terms of modern culture. The sensitivity of having non-blacks portraying black characters still exists, but isn’t with the same vigor of say back in the 1970s where such an act was seen as the ultimate in being disrespectful. I don’t know if Stockett’s dialect is necessarily spot-on in terms of how people spoke at that time, but since she is from Jacksonville herself, I imagine it is. My impression was that her interpretation was on the whole balanced.
Contrary to some reports I did find positive black male characters within the book; I thought Aibileen and Minny’s preacher was one. However, a reader has to keep in mind that this book is told from the point of view of women living during a time of not only American apartheid, but also extreme and limiting sexism. With that said, I thought the story could have been better served if one character had not been burdened with an abusive husband, especially when his abuse wasn’t established earlier in the story, but was thrown in within the last third of the book.
Aibileen is really the central character and the heart of the book. It is her change that is the most significant, both personally as well as historically. Although she starts off from a position of wisdom, she is never the less changed through the experience. It is apparent that she has fewer flaws than the two other major characters, but she experiences trepidation over all that can be lost to her if the experiment of the book goes afoul. I especially enjoyed that the novel ends not only with her, but her conquering what in the past had terrified her. She also plants a seed that she believes will bear fruit in twenty years.
What I furthered liked about ‘The Help’ was the gentle humor as well as one character’s ingenious use of an ‘insurance policy’ that involved a pie recipe that I hope no caterer will ever reproduce. The last bit of criticism I have is that I wish there wasn’t a point made about the one angry maid who lays it on the line with Skeeter who then turns out to be not as generous as the other maids with the money she has been given to participate in the book project. This statement might only make sense to those who have read the book, but I felt this minor character reflected the feelings of a younger generation of black women living through civil rights and that although she might have seemed unduly harsh to the lone white woman writing down the tales it was a justified anger. I wish that Stockett hadn’t cheapened this character’s hostility by making it so that she lacked compassion for a fellow maid.
Overall, I really enjoyed ‘The Help’, which is now in paperback. I think it is a meatier summer read, but not overtly heavy for reading out by the pool. The movie version of this book comes out in August.
Westerfield © 2011