The Help by Kathryn Stockett is currently near the top of the best seller lists. It’s a delightful novel about the relationships between African-American maids and their white employers in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi.
The civil rights movement was just about to take off. And while we all remember the soaring rhetoric from the movement’s leaders, we never heard from the workaday domestics who cleaned the houses, cooked the meals and raised the children of their white employers. These women suffered unbelievable indignities and abuse without ever letting on. Now, in The Help they are given a voice in their own clandestine book exposing the good, bad and ugly of 1960s Mississippi.
The novel features three narrators: two black housekeepers, Aibileen and Minny, who work for white families, and Skeeter, who is white and a recent journalism graduate from Ole Miss who wants to be a writer. Skeeter is not a racist, but is initially naïve and patronizing.
She takes a job with the local paper writing a household advice column— not her forte, and has to rely on her white friends’ maids, Aibileen and Minny, to answer readers’ questions.
When Skeeter’s best friend, the Junior League president, tries to pass a law barring the help from using the toilets in their employers’ houses, she decides to write a book in which the maids anonymously talk about their work experiences and the racism of the society.
The maids’ stories about their employers are both positive and negative, but most are negative. The stories strongly reflect the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the society. The positive ones talk about how some whites take good care of their maids and farm hands, look after their health and even their childrens’ higher education, yet still within a very paternalistic “separate but equal” environment. There is never true acceptance or a feeling of equality between blacks and whites. The novel has much to do with the drawing of invisible lines and the meager attempts at erasing them.
Skeeter begins to recognize the many lines running throughout the community—not only between blacks and whites, but also between whites. This results in her gradually becoming an outsider in white female society and also ends her budding romance with the son of a Mississippi senator. The interracial friendships carry a great risk both for Skeeter and the maids. Racial beatings and murders are sprinkled throughout the book to remind the reader of the terrible reality of that time and place.
The author creates a group of stereotypical characters: the cunning, bigoted Junior League president, the sexy “white trash” woman who marries into Jackson society but is excluded from it, the cake-eating, cigarette-smoking pretentious women of the League who ironically run a fundraiser for the “Poor Starving Children in Africa,” yet ignore and abuse the poor African-Americans and their children in their midst.
But all of this is done with a light touch and a sense of humor that lifts the novel when it could be too serious and depressing. One of the most humorous subplots occurs when a maid known as the best cook in town, Minny (perhaps the most blunt, outspoken black woman in Mississippi), pulls off what she calls “The Terrible Awful” trick on the Junior League president. Reading it one can only howl with appreciative laughter.
The book then ends abruptly. The lives of the three moderators are impacted by a major event for the better, which allows them to start a life freed from the constricting lines of Jackson. Skeeter is offered a job at a magazine in New York. Aibileen gets Skeeter’s old advice column job at the Jackson newspaper and Minny and her children finally leave her abusive husband to move closer to the family she works for who has guaranteed her a “job for life.”
How will their lives progress? We don’t know. It might be nice if the author is planning to tell us in a sequel.