The Help details the struggles of a beginning writer in 1960's Mississippi.
|Life in Black and White
Reading about the civil rights struggle is often uncomfortable regardless of your skin color or on what side of the Mason-Dixon Line you grew up. If you remember, even vaguely, living through those turbulent times it can be even more difficult. However, Kathryn Stockett’s wonderful debut novel The Help manages to tell the tale truthfully with love, respect and surprising compassion, not just for the people involved but also for the times they lived in and the outdated system they perpetuated.
The Help, set in Stockett’s hometown of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, is written from the perspective of three women – two black maids (Aibileen and Minny) and one recent college graduate (Skeeter) who is white. John Kennedy has just been elected; it is a time of hope. Change is palpable. But the ugly reality of daily life in Jackson is one where white women of means hire black women to do their dirty work for such low wages it borders on servitude. They cook in kitchens where they are not allowed to eat, clean bathrooms they can never use and lovingly raise the white children of their ‘employers’ as their own.
When Skeeter returns to town after graduation she finds herself increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo. No one cares about her degree from Ole Miss or her desire to become a writer…they just want to see her with a ring on her finger and a maid of her own. The black woman who raised her with the warmth and affection her biological mother never expressed has disappeared leaving a hole in her life and her heart. She is stunned when Hilly Holbrook, her best friend from high school and president of the Junior League, starts an initiative urging all white homeowners to add separate bathrooms for the help as a “sanitary” measure.
After a New York editor advises to “write about what disturbs you” Skeeter realizes that the indignities she sees the black maids suffer daily top her list. She secretly enlists the gentle Aibileen to help her write a book about the realities of life as a black maid. Aibileen has raised seventeen white children and one of her own, a young man who died due to his white boss’ disregard for his life.
Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is a fat and sassy dynamo who can’t hold onto a job because she won’t hold her tongue. She trusts no white woman and, at first, Skeeter is no exception. Minny fears Skeeter is simply gathering evidence that she will ultimately use against everyone involved.
Writing the book is a dangerous undertaking. In a city and a time where lynchings and beatings are commonplace and where Medgar Evers is shot down in his driveway, speaking out could cause you to lose more than your job. Stockett does an admirable job of portraying the bravery of these women while at the same time never allowing them to be seen as one-dimensional heroines of a cause.
There are many laugh-out-loud moments in The Help. When Hilly gets her comeuppance at the hand of Skeeter in a way that destroys her social standing—the thing she holds dearest—the picture Stockett manages to paint with words is nothing short of hilarious. The Help’s minor characters are drawn with just as fine a pen as the principals. Stockett captures the voices of her characters through their attitudes and their accents. Only a born and bred Southerner could write dialog that succinctly conveys the era’s distinct class lines without sounding condescending or contrived.
Mississippi is the birthplace of literary giants such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker and quite a few others. Should Kathryn Stockett prove to be more than a one-hit wonder with The Help, her name may be added to that illustrious list.