Unlike some reviewers, fans, prognosticators, and haters, I actually read all 444-pages of the #1 New York Times best-selling book, “The Help,” by Kathyrn Stockett. “The Help” tells the story of relationships between black maids and their white employers during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The fact that the author is white and was raised by her family’s African-American help in Jackson, Mississippi has been a source of more than a little controversy about the book and soon to be released movie of the same name.
Before I opine, you need a few facts about me. I am a multi-published novelist, avid reader, African-American, native Texan, cultural historian, repeated victim of racism/sexism/regionalism, a former Junior Leaguer, practicing dentist, and the granddaughter of not one but three strong Southern black women who lectured me on the ways of “white folks” from the time I learned to say “y’all” and “yes, ma’am.” So let’s just say I’m not particularly partial to an author just because I know how hard it is to write and publish a book. Nor, am I inclined to have a knee-jerk negative reaction because someone white employs black dialect to convey a third person point of view.
“The Help” is set in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1962. The main character, 23-year-old, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan recently graduated from Ole Miss with dreams of becoming a famous journalist in New York. Her mother, Mrs. Charlotte, is disappointed that her daughter came home with a degree instead of an engagement ring. From Mrs. Charlotte’s Husband-Hunting guide we learn “Rule Number One: a pretty, petite girl should accentuate with makeup and good posture” as Skeeter is very plain and tall, her mother believes her only hope is hair gel and “a trust fund.”
The chasm between the attitudes of mother and daughter is filled with more than disparate views on marriage. For starters, Mama Phelan and no one else in town will provide curious Skeeter with a satisfactory explanation of the mysterious disappearance of Constantine, the maid who lovingly raised Skeeter and her brother. This dark secret is alluded to throughout the book by the maids Skeeter interviews when she decides to undertake the dangerous mission of writing a ground-breaking novel about the prevailing racial and class barriers from the perspective of the help.
As the novel opens, Skeeter lands a job writing a helpful domestic hints column for the local paper. Because she takes this assignment knowing nothing about cleaning or cooking, she must enlist the aid of veteran housekeeper Aibileen who works for Skeeter’s gal pal, Elizabeth. This unlikely alliance becomes a friendship as the inherited scales of prejudice fall from Skeeters naïve eyes during her intimate conversations with Aibileen. Though I found the book well-plotted and fast paced with wonderfully developed characters, you can kind of see where this is going.
Skeeter’s BFF is the nauseatingly racist president of the local Junior League, Hilly Holbrook. Hilly is pushing an initiative to make every white homeowner build a separate bathroom for the disease bearing, ignorant maids–who raise their children and cook their meals. The attitudes of the local white homeowners range from vocal endorsements of Medgar Evers assassination to stealth acts of kindness for a housekeeper who succumbs to illness.
I witnessed these confusing turns of behavior as a child accompanying my grandmothers. Once, I was too little to reach the recently “unmarked” but most definitely colored fountain in the square downtown. A white man I didn’t know kindly picked me up because my grandmother was carrying packages. Then, he asked my grandmother if she went to the same church as his nig— farm hand. Another time, I was on the floor scrubbing as best as a six-year-old could, trying to help my stepfather’s mother with her domestic work for a wealthy family in East Texas. Her boss came home and told me I shouldn’t be doing that and he gave me a book to read while my grandmother scrubbed the toilets.
The geographic location and time period of the novel are skillfully woven into the scenes as both characters and foreboding theme music. Anyone vaguely familiar with the horrors of the Civil Rights Movement will, like me, find passages that give you pause, long pauses where I felt a familiar rage rise through my throat like lava hot bile. Other exchanges made me laugh so hard, I dropped the book and lost my page. The ending is very satisfying but perhaps a bit unrealistic like many novels, I suppose.
Folks, this is less Griffin’s “Black Like Me” and more “Memoirs of a Geisha” (written by a white male, Arthur Golden) in the sense that the author isn’t trying to represent the authentic “black experience.” Stockett is fictionally recounting her experience of learning that what we, as humans, have in common far outweighs our superficial class and cultural differences. And if some other non-blacks read this book long enough to wonder what it must be like to live in skin that speaks louder than one’s most eloquent, erudite words ever will, then that’s fine with me. “The Help” is a thought-provoking story that probably will not change the lingering vestiges of outrageous social injustice…but it helps.
You are invited to join Dr. mOe, soulciti and the Austin Black MBAs at a special preview screening of The Help on Monday, August 8th at 7:30pm at Regal Metropolitan 14.