Book review: ‘The Help’ brings bounty to the table
“The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett. Amy Einhorn Books. 2009. 451 pp. $24.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
As painful as it is to read about racial prejudice, the stories of Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter in “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett, reverberate with an uncomfortable truth and a sense of hope.
“The Help” is fiction, written by a white woman, a child of the 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. But she captures the voices of the black women of the era.
“The Help” takes place just as the civil rights movement gets going. Of course, in Mississippi, the going is tough. Stockett includes the murder of Medgar Evers in the book because he was assassinated in Jackson in 1963.
In those days, the maids were “colored” or worse. The term black was just coming into use. There was no such thing as an African-American, and no such thing as integrated schools, retaurants or even grocery stores.
Stockett writes the story from three perspectives, maids Aibileen and Minny and white lady Miss Skeeter.
Miss Skeeter, Eugenia Phelan, is the college-educated daughter of a cotton planter. She doesn’t fit in physically or philosophically with much of the Jackson she grew up in.
Tall and thin, with frizzy hair, Skeeter is the constant focus of her mother’s efforts to add a Mrs. to her B.A. After all, she’s already 23!
Skeeter longs to be a writer and applies to Harper & Row in New York for an editor’s position and is lucky enough to receive a helpful rejection letter from Elaine Stein, who encourages her, “…for no better reason, Miss Phelan, than someone once did it for me.”
When Stein also rejects Skeeter’s feeble attempts at being topical, she searches for something deeper.
She finds it while playing bridge with her married girlfriends.
Aibileen, her friend Elizabeth’s maid, overhears at the bridge table: ” ‘That’s exactly why I’ve designed the Home Help Sanitation Initiative,’ Miss Hilly say. ‘As a disease-preventative measure.’ …
“Miss Skeeter look real confused. ‘The Home … the what?’
” ‘A bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. I’ve even notified the surgeon general of Mississippi to see if he’ll endorse the idea.’ …”
Skeeter immediately questions this plan, which brings an angry sniff from her white friends.
Miss Hilly is written as a mean, bigoted white Southern woman who heads the Junior League and decides who is in and who is out in Jackson. Anyone who crosses her, black or white, will suffer vicious consequencs. Sadly, women like this do exist.
Aibileen, in contrast, is the most lovable person in the book. She’s proud to say she has raised 17 white children. Her own son, Treelore, dies in an accident at a lumber company. The children she cares for fill up a little of the space in the black hole that opened up with his death.
Despite the way her Miss Leefolt (Elizabeth) treats her, Aibileen spreads all her love on her little girl, Mae Mobley, teaching her to be kind and forgiving, unlike her Mama.
Minny is the sassy maid ó the one who keeps getting fired for talking back. She used to work for Miss Hilly’s mother. But she is the best cook in town.
You’ll find out how good in a twist that makes a huge difference in the outcome of these women’s lives.
When Skeeter gets a low-paying assignment for the local paper, writing a column of cleaning tips, she realizes she knows nothing about cleaning.
She turns to Aibileen to answer the questions. The maid who raised Skeeter has left while she was at college, and no one in the family will tell her what happened.
When the health initiative comes up and Skeeter sees television coverage of the first black student at Ole Miss, she finds the idea. A scary, wonderful idea.
What if she writes about what it’s like to be a maid serving the white ladies of Jackson, Miss.?
What if, indeed. It will only mean the end of everything to those who agree to the interviews. It will mean the end of Skeeter’s friendships. It could lead to physical violence.
But as Aibileen helps Skeeter, convincing her friends to tell their stories, what emerges is a mix of horror and grace. Some maids have found true friendships with their white ladies, earning their respect. Many others, though, find disrespect, hostility and almost irrational prejudice.
Tension builds as the women await the publication of the book. Skeeter gets engaged and then unengaged when her fiance finds out about her project. Skeeter’s mother is diagnosed with cancer. Minny’s husband beats her regularly, and Minny struggles with her white lady, Miss Celia.
Stockett’s maids sound just right. There’s a cadence to their speech and a wisdom developed from seeting so much and saying so little.
The white ladies, sadly, sound right, too, for that place and time. Undereducated, steeped in a dying tradition, eager to be part of the in crowd.
An important part of the book is the love between the maids and the children they’ve raised.
Another important, ever-present part is fear ó of each other. What the maids know can hurt their ladies, and the ladies can stab back with trumped up charges of theft or vandalism.
At the end of the book, in a piece titled “Too Little, Too Late,” Stockett tells why she wrote the book ó she lived it. Her family maid, Demetrie, was her best friend, and she never had the chance to ask her “what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family.”
The message Miss Skeeter and Aibileen send is simple: “We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”
That’s still true.
Keep it in mind.