A young white woman decides to interview the black maids in her hometown.
Kathryn Stockettâ€™s debut novel, The Help, is about crossing lines â€“ racial, societal, emotional â€“ in Jackson, Miss., in 1962. It crosses your brain barrier, too, with its compulsively absorbing symphony of voices. One of her three narrators, Eugenia â€śSkeeterâ€ť Phelan, an aspiring writer recently graduated from â€śOle Miss,â€ť wins the attention of an abrasive New York editor with her idea to interview black maids in her hometown for a book about what itâ€™s like to work for white women and raise their children.
Stockett makes the risks of this enterprise palpable by vividly evoking a time and place in which whites are persecuted for â€śintegration violationâ€ť and blacks are fired or jailed for even unsubstantiated accusations of impropriety or theft, beaten and blinded for using white-only bathrooms, and murdered by the KKK for being â€śuppity.â€ť The first two women who are brave and fed-up enough to sign onto Skeeterâ€™s project share the novelâ€™s narration.
Aibileen Clark has lovingly raised more than a dozen white children, always moving on â€śwhen the babies get too old and stop being color-blind.â€ť Her current boss, Elizabeth Leefolt, is an old friend of Skeeterâ€™s. But sheâ€™s an unloving mother, something Aibileen tries to make up for by indoctrinating her chubby charge: â€śYou is kind ... you is smart. You is important.â€ť
Since losing her son in an industrial accident, Aibileen â€śjust didnâ€™t feel so accepting anymore.â€ť Yet she holds her tongue when her boss harps on her or smacks her daughter. She comments, â€śSides stealing, worse thing youâ€™n do for your career as a maid is to have a smart mouth.â€ť
Stockettâ€™s third narrator is Aibileenâ€™s best friend, Minny Jackson, whoâ€™s been fired repeatedly for talking back to her bosses. If not for the devious intervention of Aibileen, Minny, â€śnear bout the best cook in Hinds County, maybe even all a Mississippi,â€ť would be unhirable after tangling with Skeeterâ€™s nasty childhood friend, Hilly Holbrooke, head of the local Junior League chapter.
We learn much about Hillyâ€™s evil machinations, including her â€śHome Help Sanitation initiativeâ€ť for separate toilets â€śas a disease-preventative measure.â€ť In fact, Hillyâ€™s heinousness spurs the maids to open up to Skeeter.
Learning exactly what â€śthe Terrible Awfulâ€ť thing Minny did to Hilly before leaving her motherâ€™s employ is just one reason to keep turning pages in this masterfully plotted novel â€“ though itâ€™s questionable whether it could effectively stymy this powerfully nasty woman.
Stockett skillfully interweaves her charactersâ€™ stories, capturing their courage, fear, and pride in speaking about â€śHow we too scared to ask for minimum wage. How nobody gets paid they Social Security.... How we love they kids when they little.... And then they turn out just like they mamas.â€ť
She evokes an insular community in which relentless summer heat, â€ślike a hot water bottle plopped on top of the colored neighborhood,â€ť is another oppressor. â€śThe Helpâ€ť is anchored in reality with references to historical events, including Medgar Eversâ€™s murder, and domestic details, including uses for Crisco that go way beyond pie crusts and fried chicken.
Stockett sustains suspense with multiple plotlines. What happened to Skeeterâ€™s beloved maid, Constantine, who disappeared while she was away at college? Why is Minnyâ€™s new boss so listless and secretive? And, of course, will the women suffer repercussions for their project?
A native of Jackson, Stockett says she wrote â€śThe Helpâ€ť because she regrets never having asked her beloved family maid â€śwhat it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family.â€ť In an afterword, she confesses her fear of â€ścrossing a terrible line,â€ť especially in â€śwriting in the voice of a black person.â€ť
A book driven by guilt could have been mawkish, but Stockettâ€™s ear for both outrage and humor and her earnest efforts to correct stereotypes pay off â€“ despite her decision to convey only black voices in dialect, with nary a dropped â€śgâ€ť among her generally less sympathetic Southern white characters.
By addressing not just injustice but the â€śinexplicable loveâ€ť that flourishes between servants and their employers, â€śThe Helpâ€ť arouses both admiration and indignation.
Moral righteousness at past transgressions, however, is easy. The question is whether readers will recognize the troubling power dynamic between employers and their less privileged â€“ often immigrant â€“ domestic help that often still exists, despite civil rights advances of the past 55 years. As Skeeter says of her inflammatory book, â€śplease let some good come out of this.â€ť
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.