The Help (by Kathryn Stockett)

18 02 2011

Recently, the cat’s been watching the fourth season of the brilliant Mad Men series. Coincidentally or not, the cat’s always been curious about what it takes to make a good series truly great. One of the things that springs to mind is the idea of “background noise”, you know, the things and characters in a series that you take for granted. But, take them out and things start to fall apart and you know they’re actually the glue between scenes and episodes.   In Gilmore Girls for instance, there’s a true tribute to the invisible existence of peripheral characters. One episode (Partings), the town troubadour ( Grant-Lee Phillips, btw) gets a chance to play as the opening act for Neil Young, so obviously he’ll have to leave town for a while. What follows is a tsunami of would-be troubadours in Stars Hollow, eagerly waiting, auditioning around town to take his place. In Mad Men, there’s a bunch of those ‘hidden gem’ characters too, but undoubtedly the most invisible of them all is Carla (who, you say?). Carla is the colored maid of the Draper household who took care of the children in season 1 through 3 (and who I have sadly missed in season 4 so far, btw!).

Now, of course, Mad Men is set in New York, in the early 60s – by all accounts a landmark period in Civil Rights history – so one can assume that the relationship between the 2 women might have been strained, but probably never hostile – though you do see in the series that even on Madison Avenue interracial relationships are still frowned upon.

Now take that same set up: white affluent and educated woman and black (poor and uneducated?? Who knows, we never get a real insight into Carla’s personal life) help and beam yourselves down, Scotty, from New York to the deep south… say Jackson, Mississippi. The result?  A relationship between 2 women, which is probably a whole lot more complicated  than the one between Betty and Carla. Segregation wasn’t a vague notion there, it was a fact, a generally understood way of being, deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of both white and black people.  This is in a nutshell what Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is about.

Narrated in turn by Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter , this story is advertised as ‘the other side of Gone with the Wind’.  Jackson in the early 60s is a not a good place to be if you’re black, it’s also not a good place to be if you are a woman who defies the rules and traditions of an entire culture. Skeeter is such a woman. She’s an educated woman who feels she can and should do more than abandon her brain by marrying and settling down and having offspring.  She boldly applies for a senior writing position. What she gets instead is a job offer to write the Miss Myrna column for a local newspaper, a column about house-cleaning tips – something she obviously knows nothing about. She decides to ask one of her friends’ maids, Aibileen, for advice. Her bold request to become a serious writer gets heard, though, by a NY female (Jewish) editor, Miss Stein, who advises her to write about something she feels strongly about. Talking to Aibileen and seeing what’s going on around her, she gets the idea for a book about the stories that black maids attending to white women, raising their white children could tell, women who’ve been flies on the wall all their lives, women who are supposed to be invisible.  The endeavor the 3 women take on is a dangerous one. This is Jackson, Mississippi, after all and it’s 1962. Racial integration (or even the thought thereof) is considered a crime. Whites will be outcast from their clubs, leagues, societies… and blacks will be beaten, locked up or worse…  It’s also a project that undoubtedly brings these women together in a secret bond.

The reader gets glimpses of some of the cruelties done to black men (there’s the beating of one of the maid’s sons resulting in him being blinded; there’s the shooting of Medgar Evers) and black women (plenty of them are accused of stealing from their white employers, others are abused by their white employers or their own husbands; still others are cast out of their white family for having children who are deemed “too white”…)

The narrative of the three women is truly bittersweet. Reading their alternating stories, you clearly see the conflicted feelings many of the black maids have towards ‘their’ white families. Most truly love the children they raise as their own and want to protect them from the horrible world they will encounter once grown up (the love Aibileen has for Mae Mobley is incredibly endearing). Some also love the women they have to help day in day out without ever being able to sit down and eat at the same table or go to the same bathroom or even get an outright ‘thank you’. Obviously there are also the other voices: the hate, the distrust, the acceptance… but also the defiance and the rage of black maids who don’t hold back, who can’t keep quiet (Minny).

I liked this book. A lot. It’s a truly old-fashioned page turner, it’s funny (the Skeeter-Hilly-toilet scene!), it’s cruel (Yule May’s story) , it’s honest and believable. A girl book too. Yes, chicklit, but with a deeper message, a broader goal, and definitely a longer-lasting significance. Does it have its faults? Yes, of course it does. The critical voice of Gretchen is pretty much dismissed after only 1 sentence (“Another white lady trying to make a dollar off of colored people”). Some of the historical events are merely touched upon and could have been developed more. However, Stockett decides to focus her attention on these 3 women and their wars at home and elsewhere and that’s no mean feat.  The relationship between the 3 women is as complex as the differences in their personalities and the troubles and strife they experience in their personal life.

Also, I can’t say, though, that I share the most often heard criticism of this book, namely that the use of the black vernacular is too stereotypical (Minny and Aibileen write in this different register, while Skeeter’s use of the English language is well… standard). I mean, it might very well be, but I never experienced this as a condescending act of a white educated author (in this case not Skeeter, but Stockett herself) toward her writing subject; or at least it never spoiled my enjoyment of the book, on the contrary actually. Maybe that’s because I’m not a Southerner, not even American.

In any case, this a warm and heartfelt book. And as sugary as that might sound, it’s warm and heartfelt for all the right reasons. It tries to make the invisible visible, and in a very entertaining way, so what’s there to complain about?



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