Saturday, October 23, 2010
Book Review - The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, Kathryn Stockett’s wonderful novel, The Help, centers around twenty-two year old Eugenia Phelan, more commonly known as “Skeeter” because she resembles a mosquito. Skeeter has just graduated from Ole Miss, and lacking something essential for young women newly graduated from college in the Deep South of the ‘60s – a husband – she returns to her parents’ cotton plantation, Longleaf.
Skeeter isn’t terribly upset that she, unlike most of her friends, has not yet married. She has her sites set on becoming a writer before she becomes one of the “ladies who lunch.” Her mother, however, is far more traditional, not that Skeeter’s mother should be the determining factor in deciding what direction Skeeter’s life takes. Though not dislikable, Skeeter’s mother has been an “absentee” mother. Like many other women of middle and upper income in the Deep South, Mrs. Phelan left the raising of Skeeter to a black nanny, in Skeeter’s case, one named Constantine. Skeeter loved Constantine, and after returning home, she finds that no one wants to tell her where Constantine is now or what happened to her. It’s Skeeter’s love for Constantine that will lead her to what forms the centerpiece of this book’s plot.
Not to be deterred from her writing ambitions, Skeeter takes the advice of a New York book publisher, who tells her to first gain some experience in the trenches by writing for a newspaper. Skeeter promptly lands a job writing an advice column on house cleaning tips for the “Jackson Journal.” The only problem is that Skeeter has never cleaned a house in her life. She simply doesn’t know what to write. Aibileen, however, does, and it’s to Aibileen that Skeeter turns.
Aibileen is a kind, dignified black woman in her fifties whose entire life has been dedicated to the service of Jackson’s white families. Aibileen has quietly and efficiently cleaned their homes and cooked their meals and most significant of all, raised their children, seventeen of them, to be exact. Aibileen had a grown son of her own, Treelore, who was killed working at a construction job site. When Treelore needed help, Aibileen says, the white men just looked the other way. When The Help opens, Aibileen is working for Skeeter’s best friend, Elizabeth Leefolt, cleaning and cooking and best of all, raising Elizabeth’s adorable daughter, Mae Mobley, who loves nothing so much as she loves strawberries.
Aibileen’s best friend is a woman whose most prominent qualities are very different from Aibileen’s quiet dignity. Although she, too, is a black working for white families, Minny has a sassy, outspoken attitude that gets her fired from jobs more often than it gets her hired, despite her considerable skills in the kitchen. And work isn’t the only struggle in Minny’s life. She has a home of her own and five young children and a drunken, abusive husband to deal with. When Minny gets a job with Miss Hilly, a woman too new in town to be aware of the difficulties Minny presents, this sassy, back talking maid becomes the one person in Jackson who holds a secret that could send the whole town reeling were she to reveal it – or prevent Minny from ever working in Jackson again.
Miss Hilly, who can most charitably be called “a witch,” institutes the “Home Health Sanitation Initiative,” which simply means that the black workers, including the maids who raise the children, cannot share a bathroom with the “white folk.” Miss Elizabeth, too quiet and traditional not to follow Hilly’s lead, has a bathroom built for Aibileen in the garage, one that the dignified Aibileen uses without complaint. Meanwhile, Miss Hilly’s Junior League puts on an elaborate fundraising effort for the “Poor Starving Children of Africa,” while ignoring Jackson’s own.
Although Skeeter, for the most part, is unaware of the racist attitudes and political tensions swirling around her (she grew up with them, after all), she’s not at all racist herself. One day, when she’s talking to Aibileen about her weekly column, she asks her a question that will turn both of their lives and the lives of many others, around: “Do you wish you could change things?”
Skeeter has hit on a plan to write a book called “Help,” exposing the plight of the blacks in 1960s Mississippi. As she puts it to a New York editor: “Everyone knows how we white people feel about the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family. But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it.” Until Skeeter came along, that is.
At first, the maids are hesitant and afraid to share their stories with Skeeter, but after Aibileen and Minny join forces, one by one, ten other maids come forward, and meeting secretly at night with Skeeter, the project begins to take shape. But the New York editor has imposed a deadline, so Skeeter and her new found friends must hurry.
Now, a white woman writing a book with twelve African-American maids doesn’t seem like such a dangerous project today, but in 1962 Mississippi, it was not only dangerous (the maids would face severe penalties if their employers ever found out), because of the Jim Crow laws, it was also illegal. As Aibileen puts it:
I reckon I know pretty well what would happen if the white ladies found out we was writing about them, telling the truth a what they really like. Womens, they ain’t like men. A woman ain’t gone beat you with a stick… No, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with them.
But Skeeter, somehow, makes colluding with her irresistible.
By now, you might be thinking that I’ve given away too much of the book’s plot. I want to assure you that this isn’t the case. I haven’t even touched on Skeeter’s eventual relationship with Stuart Wentworth, the Conservative senator’s son, or many of the other relationships in the book. Yes, the book’s narrative arc does arise from Skeeter’s own book project, but the real meat and potatoes of the novel lies in the relationships between Skeeter and the black maids, between the maids and their employers, between Skeeter and her one time good friends, between Aibileen and little Mae Mobley, and more. The Help, while on its surface, a light comedic novel, is still one with great depth and many layers. And hidden in those layers is outrage and horror, though Stockett only skirts the worst of the racial divides of the day.
Though the theme of The Help could have cause the book to develop a dark, serious tone, Stockett, instead, focuses on the gentler side of life, the affection between the maids and their young charges, the solidarity among the maids themselves, and the bond Skeeter develops with the women she comes to know so well. Even the book’s worst character, Miss Hilly, is portrayed with some warmth and affection. No, she’s not likable, but she can be funny – in her own way. Aibileen and Minny, especially are portrayed with great warmth and love. They are fully realized, three-dimensional characters who leap off the page and into the heart of the reader.
It’s Aibileen and Minny who share the narration of The Help with Skeeter, herself. Stockett does a wonderful job in differentiating each character’s voice, and it should be noted that while the maid’s dialogue is written in thick dialect, this dialect comes off as sincere and authentic. This must have been a very difficult balancing act for Stockett to achieve, but achieve it she does. The Help is a book that could have made so many missteps, a book that walked a very fine line without ever once crossing it. It’s a marvelous achievement, and one that’s truly original, enriching, and life affirming. If you’re like me, you won’t want this book to end.
Recommend: Definitely. This is a beautiful, accomplished novel and Stockett is a wonderful storyteller.