Admittedly I only began reading The Help after all the hype about the film and Octavia Spencer’s Oscar-winning performance as Minnie, the fiercely outspoken maid who commits A Terrible Awful Thing against one of her employers. And despite my misgivings that the novel would not measure up to the hype surrounding the film (incidentally I read the book before watching the movie!), I found myself really enjoying this novel. It’s pace is slow and genteel like a long hot summer, but with a undercurrent of malevolence which serves to highlight the growing tension during the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s Mississippi. But it is also a very personal novel. It is at once a love letter to Mississippi whilst acknowledging her faults and wrongs but at the same elevating the common thread that binds blacks and whites together, their humanity, love and relationships.
The story centres around three main characters Aibileen, a black maid raising Mae Mobley, the eldest daughter of her white employers, the Leefolts, after the tragic death of her own son. Though a quiet and gentle woman, Aibileen is embittered by the death of her son and no longer so accepting of the unfairness of life in Jackson, Mississippi. Minny, her best friend is considered the best cook in Jackson, but her feisty ways and sassy tongue often gets her into much trouble with her employers. A run-in with the influential Hilly Holbrook, in which the Terrible Awful Thing is committed causes her to be unable to gain work elsewhere until she fortunately able to find work as a maid to Celia Foote who is more or less a social outcast to the rest of the white women of Jackson due to Hilly’s machinations. Lastly there is Skeeter, a young white woman, best friends (inexplicably) with Hilly Holbrook and has ambitions to be a writer, and comes home from college to discover that her beloved maid, Constantine has left the family but nobody will tell her the real reason why.
Improbable as it may seem, these three women form a tight bond of friendship which begins with Skeeter’s desire to write about the relationship between black maids and their employers (from the maid’s point of view) and her quest to find out what really happened to Constantine. However, Skeeter’s project is not without its difficulties, as to find maids willing to openly discuss their working relationship presents a problem because in a town as small as Jackson, even with guaranteed anonymity it would not be hard to discover who is being talked about and would put the maids at risk of losing their jobs or worse. But a series of events slowly convince Jackson’s maids to take part in the project, encouraged by Aibileen and Minny who from the start see both the benefit as well as the danger in talking to Skeeter about their experiences.
Kathryn Stockett doesn’t shy away from the complexity of what Skeeter is attempting and skilfully contrasts Skeeter’s naivety against the cautious wisdom of Aibileen. As the novel progresses, and that of Skeeter’s interviews with the maids, what begins as a project to get Skeeter published becomes a desire to highlight not only the injustices but also the kindness, the joy, love and friendship experienced by the maids in certain circumstances. Skeeter begins to question her own upbringing and the life she has taken for granted, as well as the people, and begins to understand truly who her friends are. It’s not about being white and therefore having the upper hand in all things or about being black and subservient to others. It’s about who you are and your willingness and courage to stand for what is right no matter the cost to you personally.
The Help, noble a story as it is does present a bit of a problem, one that the author shares in her end notes. It is that of voice and I guess ownership of stories. Here you have a white woman writing a novel about a white woman writing about the experiences of black women in their words and in their voice. But I guess the main argument here would be that in the 60s, for black people to speak out against the daily injustices they faced meant death especially in Jackson. The lives of the Civil Rights leaders of that era were constantly under threat and in some instances where those who opposed them were successful in silencing their voices, it served as a warning to others not to follow. But it also served as a touch-paper to light the fire to cause others to rise up, which is what I think happens here in the novel. I also think that rather than focus on who is telling the story, we should instead think about whose story is being told why it is important to hear.