Although this book was published in 2009, it remains a solid best seller, and the Disney movie “The Help” which came out this summer, is proving to be a just as successful. The book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, has based her book partly on her recollections of growing up with an Afro-American maid in her family, who was “looked after” (they paid her medical bills), but at the same time used a separate toilet when she was working for them. The book chronicles life in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, specifically from the point of view of two Afro-American maids and from the viewpoint of a young white woman who gets the idea to elicit and write their stories and the experiences of other Afro-American maids in Jackson.
The young white woman, Skeeter, is a misfit in the young Southern belle world, being too tall and gangly for dating purposes and being literary-minded, in a down home kind of culture that doesn’t prize educated females. Fresh home from college, Skeeter wants to be a writer. Her naïve letter of application to a New York publisher expecting to be considered for an editorial position gets the attention of one of their real editors, who advises her start writing about “what she knows”, and to get a position at a local paper anyway she can. Skeeter eventually comes up with the idea of the maids’ stories, and it is just revolutionary enough for that place and time to get the New York editor’s attention and a promise to look at the finished copy.
Kathryn Stockett’s prose flows easily and I quickly became immersed in the three narrators’ lives. It was only at the end that I realized that some of the criticism being written about The Help was accurate. The book does end up being about Skeeter more than the two maids – it is Skeeter’s success that we’re rooting for, and for her escape from Jackson. What is ironic is that the maids also support her leaving, as though they are equals and have the same view of the culture that Skeeter does, as a white woman. In reliable, firsthand accounts of women at that time, even the imagining of any so-called “hardships” that single white women (like Skeeter) might be enduring would be a luxury of imagination that the Afro-American population as a whole was not interested in or motivated to indulge in. They needed all their energies to stay alive. The maids in this book, and in the movie, simply do not illustrate the actual conditions that Afro-Americans experienced at that time in the United States.
The audacity that prompts the older maid, Winnie, to conceal human waste in a pie for her white employer belongs to someone in a much more relaxed era of race relations. Stockett manipulates the maids' situations to a level of equality with the white women, as when a ragged naked white man tries to assault both the lady of the house and her maid. The book's lighthearted comic quality goes hand in hand with copious tears about the maids raising children not their own, and how emotionally available the Afro-American women are compared to frigid white women. While the book’s easy accessibility to its characters makes you feel that you’re present in their lives, this fiction is a sweetened up version of the real thing, like Minnie’s chocolate pie.
(This book was reviewed by my colleague, Dan, on 2/3/10)