Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Help

For some reason, whenever a book gets too popular, I become less interested in it. It's contrary and weird and I'm not sure why it happens, but it does: the more people who recommend a book to me, the more wary I am about reading it. At least partly, I think it's because I like to come to books in my own time and at my own pace, and I think I've been caught up in the hype before and then been really let down by the book. All this typically changes, though, when said book is being made into a movie that I'm going to see (either for work or by choice, or some lucky combination of the two). That was the case with Kathryn Stockett's The Help: it was on the bestseller list almost immediately after its release and everyone talked about it, and then out came the movie (which opened last night), so I cracked and read it. Then I couldn't put it down.

The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early '60s and is told from the perspectives of three women: Aibileen and Minny, who are both black maids, and Skeeter Phelan, a white woman who has just returned to town after finishing her undergraduate degree. Skeeter is the only one of her friends to finish university – all the others left to get married – and her return to Jackson sees her catching up with old friends Hilly and Elizabeth, both of whom are married with children and running households of their own. Hilly is the queen bee of Jackson society ladies, and her role as Junior League president ensures her influence. So, when she decides that white homes with black maids need to build separate bathrooms for the help, she expects that to happen, starting at her friend Elizabeth's house.

Aibileen is Elizabeth's maid, and besides all the cooking and cleaning, Aibileen is also basically raising Elizabeth's daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen has spent her entire working life raising white children for their parents, but she always leaves before they get too old. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, worked for Hilly's mother until Hilly had her fired and then spread rumours that she was a thief. Minny, in a fit of anger, does the 'Terrible Awful" (which I won't give away) and then fears for her life. She ends up getting a job cleaning for Celia Foote way out in the country. Celia is a "white trash" country girl who married Hilly's ex-boyfriend. She has therefore be banned from Jackson society (although she doesn't know it, and her attempts to make friends are heartbreaking) and has no idea Minny is supposed to be a thief.


It all comes to a head when Skeeter gets a job writing the home maintenance column for the Jackson Journal. Of course, Skeeter grew up with a maid (Constantine, who she loved and who has inexplicably disappeared) and has no idea how to clean or wash anything. She gets permission from Elizabeth to talk to Aibileen about the columns and in the process learns about Aibileen's son Treelore, who died in a workplace accident that should never had happened. Treelore had an idea to write a book from the perspective of black workers in Mississippi, Aibileen tells her. Skeeter, who is trying to become a writer herself, pitches the idea of a book written entirely from the perspective of black maids to a New York publisher and gets a tentative go-ahead.

Here is the tricky part. There has been a lot of controversy about the fact that A) Kathryn Stockett (a white woman from Jackson) has presumed to write from the perspective of black women, and thus appropriated their story for herself; and B) that Skeeter is some kind of saviour white woman who has come to help out the poor black folks. These are issues that need teasing out, and they are not simple one. I can't speak about Stockett, having never met her, but as for the Skeeter bit, I don't think it's as dire as some people are saying. Yes, Skeeter takes it upon herself to interview maids about their lived working for white people, but she didn't come up with that idea on her own. She also, at least for the first half of the novel, has very little understanding of what she's doing or the risk she's exposing these women to. Really, she thought it would be easy, that these women would be dying to talk to her; she is shocked to find that isn't the case. Skeeter's naivete and initial ignorance of civil rights is important, because she's not just some do-gooder, she's a young woman who wants to become a writer, and that ambition complicates her motives. Skeeter is not all good, and the book makes that clear.

Essentially, she starts out trying to use these maids, and especially Aibileen, in the same way her friends do: Tell me your story, answer my questions, etc. It isn't housework, but the way society was set up, saying "no" to a white person, especially one who is friends with your employer, was no easy thing. Aibileen does say no, but Skeeter is persistant and eventually Aibileen breaks down. Over the course of the story, though, Skeeter's awareness and understanding increases, and as she gets deeper in her relationship with Aibileen and Minny, she loses her social standing and white friends.

As for Minny and Aibileen, whose stories are distinct but related, some of the details are a little cliché, but they are incredibly compelling characters, and their lives and their insight into the lives of the women they work for make for great reading. Minny's stories about Celia Foote are especially good, and she is one of the most interesting characters in the novel, which ends with Skeeter's book being published (you knew that would happen, so this isn't a spoiler).

I read The Help during a heat wave and it gave me goosebumps. I'm not saying Stockett has written a perfect novel, and I can't say whether it's a realistic portrayal of Jackson in the '60s (although, for the purposes of a fictional story, the details certainly ring true), but it is an engrossing read. Perhaps what I most appreciated was that the novel has an edge: no one is exempt from pain, no one is patently unhappy forever, and the end doesn't tie things up with a bow. Believing the story may take a little suspension of disbelief, but when the writing is this good, that is more than earned.

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Berkley edition)

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for a detailed review, Angela. The premise of The Help made me feel really uneasy, so I don't think I'll be picking up this one unless I can borrow it for free. This statement from The Association of Black Women Historians does a pretty good job of pointing out the problematic aspects of the film and the book.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've read a lot of really good pieces about why the story is problematic. I do think it's worth noting, though, that the novel has a lot more edges than the film. I don't really do book-film comparisons here, but having read/watched both, I think it's worth mentioning. The book is not perfect, and it certainly has its problems, but it is not a Disney-fied account, which the film is.

    ReplyDelete

Real Time Web Analytics
BooksANDBlogs
Powered By Ringsurf