I’m on day three of a two week vacation. Vacations for me generally include a big dose of fiction reading. I’ve loved fiction since my college African-American fiction classes. I took all the courses I could take, including weaseling my way into a couple graduate courses as an under-graduate. Great stuff. Taught me how to read, really.
Anyway, this summer’s vacation includes the New York Times‘ bestseller, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The Help represents Stockett’s first foray into novels, and I’d have to say she’s made a good entrance into the genre with a bestseller and a movie based upon the book.
The Basics. At 522 pages, The Help reads very quickly and smoothly. Even Stockett’s use of vernacular feels natural rather than strained. The novel recounts the lives of six women in 1960s Jackson, MS. Four of the women are white, two black. The two African American women, Aibilene and Minny, work as maids in the homes of Jackson’s white families. Aibilene is the older, calmer, wiser maid who loves the children she cares for. Minny is the younger, sassy, often fired maid and mother of five children of her own. Twenty-three year old Skeeter Phelan plays the white female protagonist who feels alien to her native Jackson after studying literature and journalism at Ole Miss. She pals around with Hilly Holbrook, domineering socialite, and Elizabeth Leefolt, who jumps at Hilly’s every beckon call attempting to keep her tenuous hold on her homespun standing in Jackson’s social circles. Aibilene works for Mrs. Leefolt and Minny opens the book working for Hilly Holbrook and her aging mother. Finally, there is Celia Foote, “white trash” married up, trying desperately to break into the closely-guarded social circle of Jackson elites. These relationships get too messy and too close as Skeeter Phelan, wanting to change her life and Jackson, entices Aibileen and Minny to participate in a tell-all book about what it’s like to work for Jackson’s white families. From there, life becomes a matter of avoiding the danger of being caught betraying confidences in a world where failing to tip your hat at a white lady can get you beaten, killed, and submerged in the bottom of a Mississippi river.
Is The Help worthy of the hype? You decide. But here’s a few things I appreciated.
Stockett’s courage. Perhaps the most difficult thing to do as a fiction writer is enter the thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears of people not like you. In The Help, Stockett attempts to cross “race,” class, social, and chronological barriers. Writing about African-American domestics and the women they support in 1960s Mississippi requires great imagination and observation. I think Stockett largely succeeds. I suspect the difficulty includes avoiding easy stereotypes–mammy, aunt Jemima, Sapphire, and others.
The Characters’ Courage. I love that Stockett chose to write about women who demonstrated amazing courage in a perilous time. The story’s major action takes place during a period of assassinations–Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy–and protests–Woolworth sit-ins and the march on Washington. Stockett gives the reader a sense of the world’s rapid changes outside of Mississippi, while life in Mississippi grinds seemingly unchanged. Of course, that means life remains incredibly dangerous for African Americans in general and Black maids revealing the secrets of their white employers in particular. In this swirling context of potential change and life-threatening danger, 13 maids in Jackson, MS decide to participate in a clandestine expose. Might not sound like much to us now, but then it was mortally risky. They dress their courage in white maids’ uniforms, not capes and superhero costumes. We’re reminded that small acts of defiance and courage have their own way of working change. I appreciated these heroines far more than the so-called fallen superheroes appearing on movie screens around the world.
Society. The book is a study in the fear of man. Stockett exposes how “what people think” drove the relationships and life choices of the 1960s South–and indeed so much of life today. Hilly Holbrook represents the opinion machine and gossip mill that “mattered” in segregated life. With one misplaced word of sympathy or sass, with one out-of-place dress or courting relationship, with one step across the imaginary color barrier an entire life could be made or ruined. Society exacted an incredible tax for not “keeping your place.” That tax continues to be paid in different but plentiful ways as we live “under the law” of other people’s assessments. The book is worth reading if for no other reason than the reminder that popularity and public opinion are bondage. We’re meant to live for an audience of One.
Honesty. The truth is less interesting than our racial imaginations. We imagine that “the other” is all witch, all evil, or all beast. The 1960s South relied heavily on these broad fear-based stereotypes. One of the main characters, Hilly Holbrook, traded in these caricatures big time. But, honestly, most relationships included some good even in the midst of injustice. In some ways, some domestics were practically family. But at the same time, there were lines drawn, lines that could not be crossed without repercussions. The lines were uneven, of course. Whites were privileged–even poor whites–and Blacks were oppressed. Romantics like to imagine everyone wanted it that way and life was pretty happy. Radicals like to imagine that every African American was a revolutionary. The truth lies in the middle. Life included a lot of hardship and fear, but also some healthy doses of God’s grace and goodness. Stockett tries to capture this more complex reality. In doing so, she tells us a lot about ourselves, both how kindred we all are across every conceivable barrier, and how much we could have together if we would dare to cross some lines. In that way, the book both tells the uneasy, risky truth and gives some much-needed, accessible hope.
Memories. The book brought back some memories for me. My mother worked part-time as a domestic for an elderly white woman named… well, let’s change the name to protect everybody. That was a confusing time for me. On the one hand, I hated my mother working “for that white woman.” I found the entire idea demeaning, a throw-back to Jim Crow, a capitulation to already vanishing racial codes. I couldn’t bear the thought of my mother cleaning behind “that woman” and her family. But on the other hand, my mother hovered somewhere between necessity and affection. She seemed to genuinely like the woman, and we needed the money. When we didn’t need the money, my mom still visited and helped at times. It baffled me. The book stirred some of those memories, which indicates that Stockett wasn’t far from the reality. And that makes sense given that Stockett’s motivation for the book included memories of the helper, Demetrie McLorn, who cared for her during her tender years.
Thanksgiving. I’m glad the world of 1960s Jackson, MS does not exist any more. The things Stockett dramatizes occurred just a few years before I was born. So much good has happened since then. So much progress has occurred. To be certain, there is no Utopia and we don’t live in it. But, the Lord has allowed so much growth and change it’s difficult to imagine that the segregated South was a bit over 40 years ago. Things do change. People do change. Praise God!
Application. Finally, The Help helps me to think about where I currently live. The Cayman Islands don’t have the racial segregation history of the American South. Praise God. But we do have quite a number of domestic workers here in Cayman–largely Jamaican and Filipino women serving many of the families on this island. Many of these women live lives a lot like those fictional women in The Help. Seems plausible to me that some of these domestic helpers might have similar stories to tell. I suspect many families who read this book will be helped to care for their nannies and helpers in a far better way. At least I hope they will.
Conclusion. If you’re looking for a good novel set in an important historical era, I commend The Help to you. There are about two-dozen expletives throughout the book. But apart from that, Stockett has given us a clean, honest look at ourselves through the lives of the characters she creates.