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The Help

by Kathryn Stockett (Amy Einhorn/Putnam, 2009)

It sounds like bad movie marketing to claim that The Help is about the writing of a book so incendiary that people might get killed — and let's hope that that's not the kind of ad campaign we get stuck with when, as is bound to happen, Kathryn Stockett's novel is adapted for the movies. The claim, however, is correct. It's Jackson, Mississippi, in the early Sixties, and three women tremble at the hub of a ring of black housemaids, women who dare to talk about their experiences with the genteel ladies who employ them. As the Civil Rights movement that began in the late Forties surges toward its triumphs, the fierce defenders of Jim Crow prepare for a ferocious backlash. Not the least of Ms Stockett's achievements is keeping a sense of social crisis rumbling in the background without letting it drown out her far more delicate tale — one in which men are the enforcers and women the real bosses.

The book project precipitates slowly, amidst so many personal crises that it comes almost as a surprise to realize that the book project is the backbone of the plot. This stealth is made possible by the strength and individuality of the novel's three narrative voices. Two belong to maids. Aibileen, whose specialty is caring for small children, speaks in a faithfully-transcribed dialect that flows miraculous, unselfconscious fluency. In the following passage, Aibileen tries to get her current charge, two year-old Mae Mobley, to start using the toilet. It's a complicated business, because the little girl's mother has been persuaded to build a toilet in the garage, so that Aibileen won't use the one in the house.

    We look at each other. She point again and say, "You go."
    Now, I aint saying I ain't heard this before, but usually I can get around it. I know, though, she got to see how it's done fore she gone get to business. I say, "I don't got to go."
    We look at each other. She point again and say, "You go."
    Then she get to crying and fidgeting cause that seat making a little indent on her behind and I know what I"m on have to do. I just don't know how to go about it. Should I take her out to the garage to mine or go here in this bathroom? What if Miss Leefolt come home and I'm setting up on this toilet? She have a fit.
    I put her diaper back on and we go out to the garage. Rain make it smell a little swampy. Even with the light on it's dark, and they ain't no fancy wallpaper like inside the house. Fact, they really ain't no proper walls at all, just plyboard hammered together. I wonder if she gone be scared.

We are not surprised that Mae Mobley is not frightened, or that the undertaking is a big success. Even though we're still in the first fifth of the novel, we know that Aibileen is a wise and competent woman whose fast thinking is damped by her kindness — and a fair measure of prudence. For Aibileen, however, the bathroom marks a line, and, having crossed it, she cannot return to her lifelong docility.

The other maid, Minny, presents an entirely different face. Minny is known for her great cooking — and also for her sass. Sooner or later, she says something that no self-respecting white housewife can countenance, and Minny finds herself looking for another job. Her narrative voice, in contrast to Aibileen's, speaks in low-key but largely grammatical English. Here we find her on her first tour of the home of Celia Foote — a good-hearted white trash girl who has married up in the world — hoping against hope that she'll be offered the job.

    She opens up a silver closet the size of my living room. She fixes a candle that's turned funny on the candelabra and I can see why she's looking so doubtful.
    After the town got work of Miss Hilly's lies, three ladies in a row hung up on me the minute I said my name. I ready myself for the blow. Say it, lady. Say what you thinking about me and your silver. I feel like crying thinking about how this job would suit me fine and what Miss Hilly's done to keep me from getting it. I fix my eyes on the window, hoping and praying this isn't where the interview ends.

It isn't. Minny is at the beginning of a long career, punctuated by odd and sometimes funny episodes, working for poor adrift Celia. One wonders how Celia's story will turn out — in another book, perhaps.

On its own, Aibileen's patois would not attract attention to itself, but the contrast with Minny's far more standard language may puzzle all but the most insensate readers. What does Ms Stockett mean by it? Many things, I believe. Minny, for example, has a story that derives, essentially, from opera buffa: she is the maid who knows better than her masters. Minny's situation, however, is anything but comic. Her "ordinary" speech is a transparency that allows us to see both aspects — funny and dangerous — of Minny's engagement with the white world. Aibileen, in contrast, is a philosopher, or a theologian. The rhythm of her speech is a characteristic of her prayer. The quality of her thought is important in a way that the quality of Minny's is not, and to translate it would be a terrible violation. When we find out that Aibileen writes her prayers (held by the black community to be powerful but untainted by witchcraft), what we're really learning is that Aibileen's progress is not necessarily going to be a journey to assimilation.

The third narrator is Eugenia Phelan, known to almost everyone as Skeeter. Very tall and "bony," with frizzy blonde hair and a vague ambition to be a writer, Skeeter has not attracted any gentleman callers, much to the dismay of her profoundly traditional mother — who most certainly does not call her "Skeeter." Having graduated from Alabama, she whiles away her time at her parents' farm, which they call a "plantation." Well-connected socially, Skeeter is the editor of the Junior League newsletter, and a member of a ranking bridge club, but her life does not begin to engage her, and at the start of the novel she is just beginning to go against the grain. For one thing, she balks at printing an advisory about segregated bathrooms in the League newsletter. We know this long before she herself tells us about it, because Aibileen reports a conversation very early in the novel:

    Miss Skeeter look real confused. "The Home ... the what?"
    "A bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. I've even notified the surgeon general of Mississippi to see if he'll endorse the idea. I pass."
Miss Skeeter, she frowning at Miss Hilly. She set her cards down faceup and say real matter-a-fact.
         "Maybe we ought to just build you a bathroom outside, Hilly."
And Law, do that room get quiet.
    Miss Hilly say, "I don't think you ought to be joking about the colored situation. Not if you want to stay on as editor of the League, Skeeter Phelan."
    Miss Skeeter kind a laugh, but I can tell she don't think it's funny. "Why, you'd... you'd kick me out? For disagreeing with you?"
    Miss Hilly raise and eyebrow. "I will do whatever I have to do to protect our town. Your lead, Mam."

Countering our three very sympathetic narrators is Ms Stockett's ace in the hole: Hilly Holbrook, a villain to tickle the claws of the most jaded readers. Just as Miss Hilly strains like Cerberus to sniff out any and all signs of disobedience to her social sway, so readers will be straining at the novel's comprehensive pace in eager anticipation of Hilly's retribution. That she gets it more than once but still puts up a good fight does not make her any more endearing; no reader is ever going to feel sorry for a woman who would be a moral monstrosity if she were not so readily found in almost every Southern community, even today. The hound of respectability, Hilly controls the gossamer cables that determine every woman's standing among Jackson's gentry; she gets the job, naturally enough, because she's more willing than anyone else to put in the work. Aibileen's description of Hilly's power is nothing less than horripilating.

    After while, my mind done drifted to where I wish it wouldn't. I reckon I know pretty well what would happen if the white ladies found out we was writing about them, telling the truth a what they really like. Womens, they ain't like men. A woman ain't gone beat you with a stick. Miss Hilly wouldn't pull no pistol on me. Miss Leefolt wouldn't come burn my house down.
    No, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches' fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They done take they time with em.
    First thing a white lady gone do is fire you. You upset, but you figure you'll find another job, when things settle down, when the white lady get around to forgetting. You got a month a rent saved. People bring you squash casseroles.
    But then a week after you lost your job, you get this little envelope stuck in your screen door. Paper inside say Notice of Eviction. Ever landlord in Jackson be white and ever one got a white wife that's friends with somebody. You start to panic some the. You still ain't got no job prospects. Everwhere you try, the door slams in your face. And now you ain't got a place to live.
    Then it starts to come a little faster.
    If you got a note on your car, they gone repossess it.
    If you got a parking ticket you ain't paid, you going to jail.
    If you got a daughter, maybe you go live with her. She tend to a white family on her own. But a few days later she come home, say, "Mama? I just got fired." She look hurt, scared. She don't understand why. You got to tell her it's cause a you.
    Least her husband still working. Least they can feed the baby.
    Then they fire her husband. Just another little sharp tool, shiny and fine.
    They both pointing at you, crying, wondering why you dont it. You can't even remember why. Weeks pass and nothing, no jobs, no money, no house. You hope this is the end of it, that she done enough, she ready to forget.
    It'll be a knock on the door, late at night. It won't be the white lady at the door. She don't do that kind a thing herself. But while the nightmare's happening, the burning or the cutting or the beating, you realize something you known all your life: the white lady don't ever forget.
    And she ain't gone stop till you dead.

Against the background of this nightmare, Hilly's tireless, almost demented advocacy of separate toilets for blacks in "every white home" stops being funny and starts being toxic. We remember that Hilly "resolved" an argument with Minny (her mother's housemaid) by spreading false accusations about Minny's having stolen silver. The nice ladies into whose ears she pours these libels might doubt their veracity, but they don't doubt Hilly's ability to make life difficult for any woman who declines to act upon them. Aibileen may be forgiven for not mentioning that the white women use the sharp, shiny tools on one another as well — indeed, that is the beginning of their power. When Hilly has another maid sent to prison, she casts off the last remnant of true decency.

    "Hey Miss Skeeter," whispers Aibileen. She's still in her white uniform and white orthopedic shoes.
    "Should I..." I point behind me. "I'll come back later," I whisper.
    Aibileen shakes her head. "Something awful happen to Yule May."
    "I know," I say. The room is quiet except for a few coughs. A chair creaks. Hymn books are stacked on the small wooden table.
    "I just find out today," Aibileen says. "She arrested on Monday, in the pen on Tuesday. They say the whole trial took fifteen minutes."
    "She sent me a letter," I say. "She told me about her sons. Pascagoula gave it to me."
    "She tell you she only short seventy-five dollars for that tuition? She ask Miss Hilly for a loan, you know. Say she'd pay her back some ever week, but Miss Hilly say no. That a true Christian don't give charity to those who is well and able. Say it kinder to let them learn to work things out themselves."
    God, I can just imagine Hilly giving that goddamn speech. I can hardly look Aibileen in the eye.

In another kind of book, we might be made privy to Hilly's thoughts; we might learn something about the factors that made her the pig-eyed virago that she is. But The Help is, in the end, a comedy, not a tragedy, and Hilly must not be allowed to speak for herself. The Help is very high comedy, very grave and serious comedy — but its strategy is to wind up the reader's outrage the better to provide a whirlwind at the dιnouement. And just as Miss Hilly is punished, so the three narrators are transformed into free women. They're no longer stuck in their place in Jackson.

    Sometimes, when I'm bored, I can't help but think what my life would be like if I hadn't written the book. Monday, I would've played bridge. And tomorrow night, I'd be going to the League meeting and turning in the newsletter. Then on Friday night, Stuart would take me to dinner and we'd stay out late and I'd be tired when I got up for my tennis game on Saturday. Tired and content and ... frustrated.
    Because Hilly would've called her maid a thief that afternoon, and I would've just sat there and listened to it. And Elizabeth would've grabbed her child's arm too hard and I would've looked away, like I didn't see it. And I'd be engaged to Stuart and I wouldn't wear short dresses, only short hair, or consider doing anything risky like write a book about colored housekeepers, too afraid he'd disapprove. And while I'd never lie and tell myself I actually changed the minds of people like Hilly and Elizabeth, at least I don't have to pretend I agree with them anymore.

The Help is a big, popular novel that happens to be too well-written to offend literary sensibilities. It is also a comedy that happens to be too great to deserve condescension. A few terrible things happen in the novel's wide-spanned course, but a lot of funny things happen — things that are funny, it turns out, because Aibileen and Minny (and even Skeeter) have the Southern cousin to Jewish humor. Looking back at a regrettable social structure while celebrating the determination that overthrew it, The Help is an open invitation to rejoice in humanity. (February 2009)

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