Wednesday, April 1, 2009
"The Help" (Putnam, 2009, $24.95) is Kathryn Stockett's fictional exposé of racial discrimination in Jackson's white upper-middle class in the 1960s. Stockett, a white Jackson native, zeroes in on the nice, well-to-do white ladies who fueled segregation with a straight face.
The author speaks pathos and humor through the first persons of Aibileen and Minny, two black maids, and Miss Skeeter, a young white Ole Miss grad and aspiring progressive journalist. The integrity of the three voices and the masterful use of southern black dialect undergird the story, which explores racism, classism and the concept of "family"—albeit dysfunctional—between servants and those they served.
After graduating from college, Skeeter tries to re-enter life with her best friends since elementary school, Hilly and Elizabeth. But Skeeter is single—much to her mother's chagrin—in a couple's world. So, Skeeter taps her foot at Wednesday bridge games, which revolve around selecting baby's names, Hilly's attempting to match-make Skeeter with the senator's hard-drinking, eye-wandering son, Stuart Whitworth, while simultaneously pushing the "Home Help Sanitation Initiative. ... Low-cost bathroom installation in your garage or shed, for ... (your black maid.)"
Wanting to fit in, Elizabeth installs a garage bathroom for Aibileen, but then abdicates all responsibility for potty training her own child, Mae Mobley, to Aibileen, despite the fact that Aibileen can't sit on the "white" commode and Mae Mobley can't sit on the "black" commode.
All the while, Skeeter yearns for Constantine, the black maid who raised her but vanished while Skeeter was away at college. Skeeter recalls that at age 13, a boy called her ugly. Constantine pressed her thumb into Skeeter's hand and said: "You gone have to ask yourself, ‘Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?' ... I was smart enough to realize she meant white people. ... It was the first time she ever talked to me like I was something besides my mother's white child. All my life I'd been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl. But with Constantine's thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe."
Constantine's disappearance seems to provoke and empower Skeeter to write—hopefully for publication—the truth about the lives of black maids in Jackson, a project that would certainly not sit well with Skeeter's friends or family and might jeopardize the maids who would participate.
So, under the guise of getting help on a newspaper housecleaning advice column, Skeeter talks with Aibileen, who daily writes her prayers and is on the waiting list for "To Kill A Mockingbird" at the "colored" library. (She can't use the "white" State Street Library.)
Eventually they meet in Aibileen's tiny house under the secrecy of darkness, night after night, gathering and compiling stories of the real lives of black maids in Jackson. Minny joins them in a virtual underground railroad of information in a dangerous world for such an undertaking: Medgar Evers is killed several blocks away during their project. Nevertheless, the three stick together, getting the book published and developing a friendship that crosses existing arbitrary racial and cultural lines.
Three copies of the book go in the white Jackson library, and WLBT-TV reviews it. Aibileen and Minny's church celebrate behind locked doors, and Skeeter splits the $800 advance 13 ways—with Minny, Aibileen and the contributing maids.
A different Minny emerges from the person who spoke "her furiousness at white people," objecting that: "This stuff … (we are writing) don't have nothing to do with colored rights. Ain't but day-to-day-business. ... Look to me like you just writing life." The new Minny—whose savvy includes a pie story in their writings, at her own peril, that offers them all some protection if their work is published—urges Skeeter to write. "Don't walk your white butt to New York, run it," she says.
Stockett's epilogue to "The Help" entitled "Too Little, Too Late, Kathryn Stockett, In Her Own Words," explores Stockett's own loving relationship with her own family maid, Demetrie. It reveals her conflicted feelings for Mississippi and "The Help," and her fear of "having told too little" of both the bad and the good: "Life was so much worse for so many black women working in the homes in Mississippi," and "there was so much more love between white families and black domestics than I had the ink or the time to portray."
"The Help" holds its own without the epilogue, like a Picasso connects without an autobiography hanging alongside. In fact, Stockett is such a master of words that I'd hate to see the Williams sisters—even doubled up—try to play her at word tennis.
Caveat: Reading "The Help" could turn a Miss Hilly—if any still exist, God forbid—into a beet-red-faced-temper-tantrum-throwing-book-flinger. So, stay alert and duck, for it's a wonderfully big book in every respect.
Signed copies of "The Help" are available at Lemuria. Call 601-366-7619.