A New York Times bestseller describes the mistreatment of black maids at the dawn of the civil rights era
The Help: A Novel. By Kathryn Stockett. Putnam’s/Amy Einhorn Books, 464 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
Forty-five literary agents rejected The Help, and although that’s not an alpine number in today’s market, it’s easy to imagine why they did. A white University of Alabama graduate has written much of her first novel in the alternating voices of two black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s – as though Margaret Mitchell weren’t still taking heat, 60 years after her death, for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind.
For anybody who isn’t put off by the transracial ventriloquism, The Help may hold surprises. Kathryn Stockett tells the story of a white Ole Miss graduate who returns to her well-off parents’ cotton farm, cringes when she sees how her friends treat their “help,” and vows with the secret cooperation of the maids to write a book that exposes the abuses. There’s a lot to expose.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has rejoined a world in which maids work for less the minimum wage and must wear uniforms if they attend the weddings of children they helped raise. They must use dishes and bathrooms their employers don’t. And if they protest these and many other indignities, they may be fired and blackballed by women who can keep them from working again in their towns. In their off hours, they face all the other injustices of segregation, including that can’t use white hotels, restaurants and libraries.
The Help falls into the category that publishers call “mainstream women’s fiction” and has many of its hallmarks, such as a subplot involving Skeeter’s romance with the callow son of a politician. And yet it has something rarely found in novels that have as much pink on their covers as this one does: sustained social commentary. Stockett describes the results of a silent auction at the Junior League Annual Ball and Benefit in Jackson:
“As names are read, items are received with the excitement of someone winning a real contest, as if the booty were free and not paid for at three, four, or five times the store value. Tablecloths and nightgowns with the lace tatted by hand bring in high bids. Odd sterling servers are popular, for spooning out deviled eggs, removing pimentos from olives, cracking quail legs.”
That is sharper and more interesting writing than you will find in many novels with more literary pretensions, and it makes you wonder what Stockett could do if she gave a free rein to her satirical instincts. In some ways The Help resembles The Nanny Diaries, though the plot is more far-fetched and the writing less polished. Justice comes for the household employees, to the degree that it arrives at all, at scalper’s prices. Students of the abuses of the Jim Crow era may find much of The Help unsurprising, but the collective memory of those abuses is fading. This novel would be welcome if only because it will help to keep the hidden cruelties alive both for those who have never known of them and for those who would prefer to forget.
Best line: The belles of The Help know that before you marry, you can never give too much thought to choosing a silverware pattern. One woman says: “Skeeter, you’re so lucky to come from a Francis the First family pattern.”
Worst line: The black maids often say things like: “Law, my phone was disconnected cause I’s short this month.” And Stockett makes phonetic substitutions in their speech but not usually in their employers’. Given that her black characters say things like “terrified a” instead of “terrified of,” shouldn’t some of her whites be saying “Ah can’t” instead of “I can’t”? Ah may be a Yankee, but ah think they might could, because ah know how often writers done been tryin’ to show how white people talk in New Jersey.
Editor: Amy Einhorn
Published: February 2009
About the author: Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and lives in Atlanta.
Mini reading group guide to The Help: 3 Discussion questions for book clubs: 1) So, did y’all think Stockett was brave or insane for writing in the voices of Aibileen and Minny?
2) Janet Maslin wrote of The Help in her New York Times review: “It’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions. And it celebrates noblesse oblige so readily that Skeeter’s act of daring earns her a gift from a local black church congregation.” How much truth does this comment contain?
3) Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote in her review in Ms.: “As an African American, I accept black idioms as an aesthetic choice, but they nonetheless grated. Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have? There’s also the narrative rut of downtrodden but world-wise blacks showing white people their own souls, leading them out of a spiritual wilderness to their better selves. The Help has much more on its mind than that, but it doesn’t avoid going down a road too well traveled.” Do you agree or disagree?
Furthermore: The Help is #30 on the most recent New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list.