The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which was my book club’s October selection, has been celebrated and made into a movie already. Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter share the narration for the 1960s segregated Jackson, Mississippi, as the lines blur between the races and to social classes. While Skeeter’s social class is not as pure as it seems, the Black maids are struggling to make ends meet and hold their tongues even as others are engaged in sit-ins at the local Woolworth’s and marches. Stockett carefully illustrates the social and color lines in the South, while also paying careful attention to the harsh realities of Black maids in white households. This is not just a story about Black maids, but also about where stigma comes from, how it is perpetuated, and how it can be overcome.
“And I know there are plenty of other ‘colored’ things I could do besides telling my stories or going to Shirley Boon’s meetings — the mass meetings in town, the marches in Birmingham, the voting rallies upstate. But truth is, I don’t care that much about voting. I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people. What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing the silver.” (page 256)
Stockett has created a novel that gets readers thinking about their own environment and what they tolerate on a daily basis, even though they do not agree with certain things that happen or continue to be spoken in anger or prejudice toward others. Like she notes in her “Too Little, Too Late” essay at the back of the paperback, no one in her white family who had a Black maid even thought about asking the maid what it was like to be Black in the deep south. How many things that go on daily do we disagree with and dislike, but allow to happen without so much as a criticism or objection?
On one hand, readers are introduced to the Black maids and the prejudice they put up with from their white employers, and on the other hand, Stockett introduces Skeeter, a young woman returned from college to find that she is vastly different from her childhood friends, Hilly and Elizabeth. While the parallel is lightly drawn and clearly not the same kind of prejudice on both sides, it does raise the question about what it means to create groups within a larger society to the exclusion of others. Both avenues lead to great isolation and emotional pain, but the consequences of speaking out against that oppression are potentially more violent and devastating for the maids than for Skeeter.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett provides a balanced look at the love and disdain in the relationship between white women and families and Black maids, but it also tends to play it safer than one would expect given the volatile time period being discussed. Yes, there are occasions of devastating tragedy, spousal abuse, and hints of other violent behavior, but truly the focus is less on the consequences of speaking out and more on the ties that bind each group to one another. Stockett has chosen to show the complex relationships between these women given the societal constructs that constrain their actions and behaviors, even if they would wish it not so.
About the Author:
Kathryn Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing, she moved to New York City where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. She currently lives in Atlanta with her family. The Help is her first novel.
This is my 77th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.
What the Eclectic Bookworms Thought (Beware of Spoilers):
Overall, we all enjoyed The Help and determined that it accurately portrayed the South, particularly the conflicted emotions of the Black maids and the children they raised. It also demonstrated the poor logic that many white families used to determine what Blacks were good enough to do for them, but not good enough to share with. For instance, Blacks cannot use the same bathrooms as whites because they are diseased, but at the same time, those maids can cook their families’ food and raise their children.
The group seemed split about which character they liked best, with some of us in favor of Minny, while others liked Skeeter and Aibileen best. One of our female members said that Aibileen’s voice was the most balanced, and that’s why she liked her best, while our youngest member said that she enjoyed Skeeter best because she was an aspiring writer. Personally, Minny’s kick ass attitude and yet vulnerability when it came to her husband and children made her both frightening and endearing — as well as a little bit vulnerable.
The club also discussed whether we would go as far as Minny to get revenge on Hilly, with only a few of saying that we would and a couple of us indicating we would have gone further. At one point the discussion of slavery came up and whether the maids would have considered themselves still slaves or something more than that, but we all seemed to be on the fence about that question. A discussion of other cultures’ use of slavery and how slaves could earn their way out was also mentioned, though none of us had any concrete sources on hand to discuss that too much in depth.
Other topics touched upon during the discussion include the friendship dynamics in Hilly’s group and how most of the women were subservient to Hilly and her approval, while others like Skeeter seemed to see that cow-towing to Hilly was wrong as well as how Minny and her family seemed to get by more easily than Aibileen who was on her own without any children. We all enjoyed the book, though some of us would have preferred less about Stuart and Skeeter’s relationship and that other sections were trimmed down. I personally enjoyed the additional insight into Skeeter and Stuart’s relationship after having watched the movie and found that part lacking in the film.