The Help Takes Us Inside Maids' Minds

The Help. By Kathryn Stockett. New York: Putnam, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-399-15534-4.

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Were you ever in a store when a customer took a temper tantrum and a hapless clerk had to endure it silently, a smile forced upon her face? Ever wonder what that clerk was thinking? Now imagine being a black maid in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era, a time in which the slightest bit of sass resulted in instant dismissal and a serious tongue-lashing of an abusive white employer might result in a midnight visit from the Ku Klux Klan.

Imagine it is exactly what Kathryn Stockett has done; The Help takes us deep into Dixie’s dirty heart: Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. It’s a world of male privilege, where single women are supposed to be daddy’s girls as they primp before tiresome, vacuous and some times vicious good ‘ole boys in hopes of ensnaring one as a husband. Their world is one of Bible study, Junior League, debutante balls, imposed modesty, and deference. Which is exactly why up-from-white-trash Celia Rae Foote can’t fit in, and why Skeeter Phelan doesn’t want to any more. Both will commit the ultimate act of betrayal: they will challenge white privilege, an ideal even more potent than male supremacy. Celia does so through simple means--she’s grateful for her black maid Minny and treats her a person. Skeeter embarks on a very dangerous course: she interviews black maids to find out what “the help” really thinks and plans to write a book about it. If anyone finds out, her reputation and that of her family will be ruined. More significantly, the lives of her informants are in serious jeopardy.

One of the book’s subplots involves Skeeter’s attempt to find out the fate of a beloved childhood maid who left when she was in college. Stockett admits that this is a bit of autobiography that inspired her to write her novel. She’s also a Jackson native and, one suspects, a bit like Skeeter Phelan. She certainly writes about Southern life with insight and flair that would be difficult for an outsider to capture. Stockett probes the complex emotions that developed in a nexus of race, power, and social change. Call it a love-hate relationship in which mutual loathing and mutual affection stood check by jowl. Especially touching are scenes between black caregivers and preteen white girls, the latter (alas) who have a distressing tendency to grow up to be just like their mothers.

The clash between change and custom is the strength of Stockett’s narrative. It was an inspired choice to set the action between 1960 and 1963. It’s always a mistake to view history as steady linear progression and that’s especially the case when it comes to civil rights. Brown v. the Board of Education was handed down in 1954, and the Rosa Parks-inspired Montgomery bus boycott desegregated city buses in 1956. Not that these things meant much in Jackson. It’s a city yet to desegregate its schools and one in which prevailing health advice suggested installing separate toilets for black domestics lest diseases for which whites had no immunities be contracted through bottomly contact. It’s also the city in which activist Medgar Evers got gunned down on his front porch. So, yes, Skeeter’s book is a seriously dangerous idea.

I’ll say no more about the central drama of the book. Besides, it’s a better character study than a narrative. Stockett protagonists are memorable, even when they feel a bit overdrawn. The book’s central villain, Hilly, is deliciously vain, pompous, airheaded, and bigoted and it’s wicked fun waiting to see if she gets her come-uppance. Both Skeeter and Celia are fully realized but even better, so are the two central black maids, Minny and Aibileen. Stockett also effectively mixes drama with comic relief.

The Help is far from a perfect book. It’s Stockett’s first novel and has the virtues one often sees in debuts--a fresh approach, unpretentious language, and personal familiarity with the topic. It also suffers from weaknesses of first books. Parts of the book feel very contrived, characters some times change too dramatically and quickly, and Stockett occasionally writes herself into corners from which graceful (or believable) escape is difficult. But, if you want insight into what was running through the minds behind the paint-on smile, The Help will assist ably.

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