Kathryn Stockett,
The Help
(Berkley, 2011)

For many, the South is a land of nostalgia. For many who have lived there -- and many who have never set foot below the Mason-Dixie line -- it exudes an aura of gentility, pastoral tradition, romanticism and down-home human rural values.

Much of this Arcadian ideal has its foundation in slavery. After all, owners of great lands, untainted by the supposedly cold industrial progressive northern ideals, need folks to take care of their great houses, and in the hierarchy structure that comes from such elitist classical thinking their womenfolk needed servants as well, to differentiate them from poorer whites. Indeed, in the decades before and after slavery, and during the civil rights movement, many southern writers have labored diligently to dismantle racism from its pastoral romantic moorings -- a very difficult task because the southern culture spent so much time and effort prettifying racism.

The trouble is that for all the talk about "separate-but-equal" and "blacks don't mind the status quo," the core essence of racism is meanspiritedness and cruelty.

In Kathryn Stockett's historical novel, The Help, this core essence is unveiled for what it is. The Help is in many ways a kind of "apocalyptical" book. The world -- as it really is -- is shown to the novel's reader and also to its many white characters who also hold a book of truth in their own hands, the book created by the white character Skeeter, and the maids Aibileen and Minny.

In the book, Aibileen and Minny are two black maids who are employed by white women. With the exception of Minny's employer, the white female employers expect what their society has taught them to expect: voiceless, submissive maids with personality who see, hear and speak no evil. To show one's self as a human being -- especially a human being who has opinions about white society's ideas -- is to get one's self fired. This is something Minny has experienced many times in the past but when the book opens, she is lucky enough to get an employer who treats her as an equal. Not that being treated as an equal by "white trash" is something Minny especially prizes. Aibileen, on the other hand, is stuck with Miss Leefolt, someone high in the social hierarchy who embodies (or wishes to embody) everything her society prizes. Miss Leefolt is, however, not even as remotely horrible as Miss Hilly, the gatekeeper of white society.

A system based on lies takes bravery to dismantle, and many unspoken and spoken lies are at work in the white households of Jackson, Miss., in 1962. The greatest of the unspoken communal lies is the one that presumes the opinions of black women do not matter. The assumption that the powerless do not see (and if they see they will not speak because they know they will be destroyed) is what is explored in this novel. Of course this truth is turned on its head with the big unspoken truth that protects the book's writers in the end. I won't tell what that unspoken truth is because I don't want to spoil it for the reader, but it is just desserts and poetic justice in a world based on white lies.

I will admit that I wasn't looking forward to reading this book. So many films and books abound with black folks being saved and helped by "nice white ladies." I kept hoping Stockett wasn't going to create a character who single-(white)-handedly started the civil rights movement. But Skeeter isn't the annoying saviour I feared. Although I'm still not sure if black folks of the civil rights era would tell anything to a nice white lady -- the KKK and all -- I'm glad the book was written. Many young people nowadays -- black and non-black-- don't really understand the past.

Plus, the souls of many white folks suffered under segregation as well. In showing Skeeter's heart, the reader understands those white people who also had to close their mouths in the face of what they considered daily cruelty and injustice.

Stockett does a great job of covering her tracks. The book shows her to be a writer who is very aware about the challenges her books would pose in the writing world. She has managed to answer every objection that might be made by black readers who distrust white women writers. The story is honest, especially in her depiction of the meanspiritedness of white women in the past. She even winks at the readers of our time by acknowledging the problems of a book being written by a white woman telling the story of black women. This book is highly recommended. It is an easy, conversational and powerful read.

by Carole McDonnell
8 October 2011

What on Earth led me to read a popular book-club book, particularly one about the South? I admit, when I was about 10, I read Gone with the Wind and fell madly in love with Rhett Butler, hoop skirts and the glamour. Then at my Mom's urging, I read real history about the Civil War and slavery. That brief love affair was gone without enough breath needed to turn a page. One lesson I learned was to avoid history-lite books like buffet service at a hospital cafeteria during flu season.

Every once in a while, something anomalous slips through. I caught the trailer for the movie at an art theater and laughed myself silly. Afterward, I was in our local Barnes & Noble and saw a stack of The Help up front. I just stopped for a moment and half a dozen people told me, "You really should read this book." That's an uncommon enough experience that I picked up a copy.

I didn't start with any expectations. Right off the bat, I fell in love. Not with any big romantic hero like Rhett Butler, but with Aibileen, the kinder, gentler member of the help. Aibileen thought of herself as a "specialist," who raised the children of white women. Mae Mobley was her 17th white child. Every day, she told the little girl: "You is kind, you is smart, you is important." And she made Mae Mobley repeat those words and internalize them so she would grow up with a good deal more self-respect than her own mother.

The Help dealt with the domestic side of racism. While the husbands were taking direct action against the blacks, including measures to stop civil rights activism like curfews, the white women were members of "respectable" groups like the Junior League. Under the leadership of mean-girl bully Hilly Holbrook, that group was trying to pass measures like the Home Health Sanitation Initiative, which would require separate (but supposedly equal) bathrooms for domestic servants.

You'd think that the feminine side of racism would be kinder and gentler, but a demurely gloved fist can do just as much damage as a bared one. If a powerful white woman like Hilly Holbrook took a dislike to her maid, she would fire her and smear her name in such a way that no other respectable family would employ her. That meant starvation for the help and her family, because the husband and any other members bore the punishment, too. Then, the white woman could get her men involved. Violence ensued from there.

While opinionated and outspoken for a black woman, Minny was one of the best cooks around. She worked for Hilly's mother, Mrs. Walters. When Mrs. Walters had a stroke, Hilly expected to inherit her mother's maid -- doing much more work at a substantially lower salary. When Minny declined, she was not only unemployed, but unemployable with six children and a husband who'd physically take all his rage out on her.

Luckily, Minny has Aibileen as a friend. When Aibileen intercepted a call from Miss Celia Foote, a backwoods white woman who married one of most eligible bachelors in town, asking her employer for a maid recommendation, she suggests Minny. Knowing that Celia is such a pariah for allegedly stealing Hilly's prize catch, Aibileen scores her friend a position that will keep her safe and out of sight of the vengeful white women.

Amongst this imbroglio, Skeeter returns from Ole Miss with her degree and dreams of becoming a writer. She's also deeply wounded by the disappearance of her own former maid, Constantine, and unable to find answers about her disappearance. Skeeter cajoles Aibileen into telling her story, then a dozen of the other help eventually come forward after Aibileen asks them to. The group creates a book exposing Jackson, Mississippi's finest families' treatment of their household servants. This was a brave and potentially deadly thing to do when Medgar Evers was shot at his own home in that very same city.

The Help deals with the stories of these women who, just a couple of generations ago were literally an inheritable item in a wealthy white person's will. To a lesser extent, we also learn how the women avoid the consequences of revealing the truth of their predicament.

Would I walk up to a person in a bookstore looking at this book and recommend it to them? Absolutely. I'd also give a brief summary of what I believe is good about the book. Stockett has managed to create memorable and lovable characters whose story makes you want to press on and believe in them. The book doesn't put white people in a favorable light; it places many of them where they rightfully deserve.

The Help is not a hard-hitting tale of the turbulent 1960s, but the book does offer a view of both black and white households of that time. If you want the most hard-hitting story about Jackson, Miss., during that same era, read Eudora Welty's award-winning Where is the Voice Coming From? Welty wrote this story right after Medgar Evers's assassination.

Many black people have rightful objections to The Help. It's optimistic at best to expect women like Aibileen who've seen many lifetimes of white abuse to entrust their most secret selves to a white woman. How could this happen? Initially, I was so enamored of Aibileen that I simply chose to suspend disbelief. I owe myself and the people reading this review better than that. I believe Stockett's painstaking crafting of the characters is the answer. More than just seeking a story, Skeeter was in search of a former servant who'd been more of a mother to her than the woman who bore her. Aibileen herself was grieving the loss of her only son and so often had served as a surrogate who was touched by Skeeter's need. That relationship and Aibileen's quiet leadership created the bridge for the rest of the community of maids to follow.

by Becky Kyle
8 October 2011


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