1962, Black voices, book review, civil rights, coherent worldview, domestic servants, historical detail, historical fiction, journalism, Kathryn Stockett, Mississippi, powerful story, racism, segregation, Sixties vibe, social snobbery, white animosity
Review: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Putnam, 2009. 444 pp. $17
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, recent 1962 graduate of the University of Mississippi and daughter of a well-to-do cotton planter, feels uncomfortable back home in Jackson. Unlike other young women in her social class, she doesn’t even pretend to like football or the young men who love it.
Skeeter (short for “mosquito,” a childhood nickname inflicted by her empty-headed older brother) has never even had a date, doesn’t know how to chat up a prospective mate, and more or less resists her mother’s attempts to make her over and see her married. Rather, she wants to be a journalist and write important stories.
Skeeter wishes she could talk to Constantine, the Black maid who raised her and would surely understand her dreams, unusual though they are. But Constantine has left the Phelan household under circumstances no one will reveal.
Meanwhile, two other Black women serve Skeeter’s erstwhile high school friends—or, rather, one does, because the other’s fired for unjust cause. Minny’s a fabulous cook, but she speaks her mind, and white employers don’t like that, or even the suggestion that she has a mind to speak. Her friend Aibileen moves heaven and earth to find her another job, which occasions the telling of lies.
Further, Aibileen, who loves the white children she brings up—seventeen, altogether, over her years of service—is grief-stricken and angry. Her beloved son, a college graduate, was beaten to death because he inadvertently used a bathroom reserved for whites—and his employer looked the other way. Consequently, Minny and Aibileen, though well schooled on how to cope in the white world, are tired of taking blows.
You know that Skeeter’s path will somehow intertwine with those of Minny and Aibileen, improbable though that sounds on the surface. You also know that Skeeter must make the approach, because she’s the only one who can do so and live to tell about it. Without giving anything away, I’ll simply say that the consequences are farther-reaching than she could have imagined, and that the racial animosity that pervades every social interaction in Jackson comes into full focus.
This setup takes a while to come together, and the narrative sometimes feels top-heavy, with three narrators, their secrets, home lives, and social connections, not all of which fit seamlessly. But Stockett keeps the pot boiling throughout, and her story, if it seems implausible at odd moments, packs a punch.
I like how she re-creates the 1960s, rare authenticity for an author who didn’t live through that time. But she grasps the Sixties vibe, the notion that change is in the air, like it or not—and these characters don’t, for the most part. Stockett senses what’s worth including and what isn’t, and I never think she drags in details, which convey a coherent worldview, the ultimate test of historical fiction and arguably its most important component. Faithful to that mindset, she makes Skeeter, though relatively enlightened by comparison to her peers, no better than she should be.
All three principal characters appeal, if in different ways and voices. Minny, the saltiest, steals the show, as with this trenchant commentary about her new employer, Celia:
. . . Miss Celia stares out the back window at the colored man raking up the leaves. She’s got so many azalea bushes, her yard’s going to look like Gone With the Wind come spring. I don’t like azaleas and I sure didn’t like that movie, the way they made slavery look like a big happy tea party. If I’d played Mammy, I’d of told Scarlett to stick those green drapes up her little white pooper. Make her own damn man-catching dress.
Too bad the minor characters don’t measure up. Skeeter’s former high school friends, now the faceless villains running the Junior League, seem like devices to aid the convoluted plot. A potential suitor of Skeeter’s hardly registers a pulse, so I don’t understand why she looks twice at him.
Her father and brother are placeholders, though her mother, who at first comes across as a stereotypical steel magnolia, achieves a little depth as the story progresses. More would have helped. I wonder whether the busyness of the narrative gets in the way; there’s just not enough time and space for development.
But The Help is a courageous, powerful novel, the kind that might not get published today, I fear. With our present emphasis on authors telling only those stories that belong to them, as judged by unknown but omnipotent arbiters, we’ve surrendered to appearances, as though they mattered more than truth. But you can still read this novel, which surrenders to nothing, and I recommend that you do.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.