Better Read Than Never: THE HELP

Amid the pampered comings and leavings in the lobby of a Chiang Mai hotel, and here on a sunny balcony overlooking the baking tourists by the pool in Krabi, I try to pretend I am not one of them. When I can’t simply enjoy warmth and leisure and good food, I am guiltily soured by this tourist business, and am too (self) conscious of the real “tourist trap”: the detachment from the serving class, the presumption that the too-visible disparity between their fortune and mine is at it should be. At its worst, it becomes a bland but bitter-edged condescension at the quaintness/ignorance/pathos/inconvenience of “these people”. These people. What a simple and toxic phrase – surely better than “these brutes”, “these savages”, but not so much different. These thoughts gain traction in a slippery tourist mind that is still digesting a jet-set reading of The Help.

Now, gentlemen! Don’t turn away, I’m talking to you, especially you (North) Americans! Kathryn Stockett’s first novel, despite its book-club hegemony, Oprah-tude and X-appeal (X chromosome, that is), and despite the baby-chick yellow and magenta of the cover of my copy, yes, and despite the preponderance of female characters and the ghostliness of the males, is a good and meaningful read. Really, it is. (My testosterone levels have hardly diminished at all.) It is a deeply imagined (or remembered, or recounted) world, and Stockett plots it with skill. Although a few incidents felt clumsy or forced, the several narrative voices of the story, set in the civil-rights cauldron of early 1960s Mississippi, carry the plot along briskly and with a surprising level of suspense. Also surprising was the humour; Stockett is writing against such a serious backdrop, but seems capable of writing a sustained wry comedy, and is often at her best when her intention is comic. Above all, though, the novel rests upon her characterization, and she has created characters that are vivid and appealing, even to a male reader.

My favourite was Aibileen, a woman of quiet compassion and spiritual force who narrates the first two chapters. At first, I was nervous about Stockett’s use of dialect for the black characters, and she has taken some heat for it. Aibileen and others say things like she gone ruin that child and I’m on tell him what I doing about this in the clear light a day. The syntax is consistent, though, and to my ears not cartoonish. We quickly come to enjoy and admire Aibileen’s voice, daringly but well rendered by a considerably younger white woman. Her wit, depth and knowing observations are smoothly apparent, and she becomes the heart of the novel; three of the last five chapters, including the final one, are also hers.

Aibileen’s husband was no good and is long gone. (Some have complained about Stockett’s treatment of black men in the story, though it must be said that the white men don’t come off much better.) Her son has met with tragedy, and an even more tragic indifference, and she has spent her life moving from one white family to another in Jackson, Mississippi, raising their young children and then moving on. As the novel opens, she is caring for Mae Mobley, her seventeenth such child, the two-year-old daughter of Elizabeth Leefolt, a brittle and pitiable shell of a depressed woman, trying hard to “keep up” appearances and with those damned Joneses. She is responsive to social status, to matters of lipstick and foundation and the enhanced hosting of her weekly bridge club, but not at all to her daughter. (Nor, we might infer, to her cynical and utterly absent accountant husband, either.) “Ai-bee”, besides her cleaning and cooking and hosting duties, six days a week, is the sole source of love and useful instruction for her “big girl”. She is also a writer, though for most of her life only of her daily prayers. Within her church community, this fifty-something maid is locally famous for the effectiveness of her praying, and everybody hopes to be on her prayer list when things get difficult, as they often do in their Jim Crow state.

Minny narrates the third and fourth chapters. She is a younger friend of Aibileen’s, another maid who moves from house to house, not because of her preference for younger children but because of her inability to hold her tongue. Much of the book’s humour (and, unfortunately, a couple of its descents into farce) comes through Minny, a tough woman who is working, as the novel opens, as a caregiver for the aging mother of Hilly Holbrook. Ah, Hilly. The feeble Elizabeth is her abject follower, as are for some reason many of the upwardly mobile young women of Jackson, but her main function in the novel is as a fulcrum for the most complacent and vicious racial attitudes of the time and place. (Other than the lynchings, of course.) Minny, inevitably in her “uppity”-ness, runs afoul of the proud young Hilly and is fired, metaphorically tarred and feathered by her ambitious young mistress’s highly strategic gossip.

Minny’s sassy mouth, in previous engagements, had been tolerable for a time because of her brilliant cookery. But once she has crossed Hilly, the only work she can get is with a white trash woman who has “married up”. The token blonde bombshell Celia Foote (easily the least believable female character in the novel) is nearly as outcast in white society as Minny because of her ignorance, her up-front sexuality in a conservative time and place, and especially because she married Hilly’s long-time boyfriend, Johnny. “Mister Johnny” makes a brief but benevolent appearance in the novel, as Celia is (rather incredibly) trying to maintain a series of secrets from him, of which Minny (and her pork chops and caramel pie) is only one. Aside from the comforts of church life and the gentle understanding of Aibileen, Minny now lives in two dangerous worlds: one, as the secret housekeeper and reluctant life-guide to Celia – who treats Minny with a longing friendliness she can hardly believe – and her home life, as mother to five and wife to the brooding, alcoholic and abusive Leroy. Her husband, though menacing at times, is another shadowy figure, working his night shifts and mainly appearing as a bruise on Minny’s arm or a gash on her temple. Through her friendship with Aiblilee, she is about to open another perilous door.

The third of the first-person narrators is from a different world, though inhabiting the same town. Eugenia Phelan is a young, tall, and awkward white woman, a close friend in high school and college of Hilly and Elizabeth. Eugenia is known, to all but her mother and throughout the novel, as ‘Skeeter’, an unflattering childhood nickname that she never outgrew. Skeeter has been raised on a cotton farm and had a very close relationship with Constantine, the family maid. At the end of Skeeter’s college period – she is the only one among her close friends who finishes with a diploma (in English), besides the “MRS degree” many of her peers were seeking at university – she comes home expecting to get a delightful surprise from Constantine. She finds, instead, that her beloved nanny has left for Chicago, without a note or a forwarding address and any sort of explanation from Skeeter’s mother.

Skeeter is the natural centre of the novel, both because of her (for me, sometimes uncomfortable) similarities to the author, and because the writing project that anchors the plot is her highly unconventional idea. Thirteen of the 34 chapters are hers. She is very bright and determined to be independent, but Stockett does well in also conveying her naivete and weakness, and doesn’t allow her to become the insufferably noble white hero of the piece. She chafes under the chronic disapproval of her former beauty-queen mother, who despairs but never quite gives up on her dream of making Skeeter presentable (that is to say, marriage-able): she tries to discourage her eccentric clothes sense, incorrigible hair and stubborn insistence on being tall. Hilly also conspires to set Skeeter up with an upwardly mobile oil man. (Skeeter’s father, meanwhile, works his farm from pre-dawn to dusk, and is therefore asleep for the interesting things that happen in her evenings. His one brief stand for civil rights humanity made me wonder, Where’s HE been the whole novel? Oh, right. In bed.) Skeeter wants to write, and her first job is as the household advice columnist “Miss Myrna” in the Jackson daily newspaper, though she is spectacularly ignorant of anything to do with stain removal or the making of the perfect piecrust. Her wan friend Elizabeth, however, employs the ever-resourceful Aibileen, who becomes Skeeter’s secret well of information in this first and least important of their writing collaborations. Meanwhile, in search of something greater, she makes a fools rush in connection with a New York publisher, also a woman, who gruffly encourages her to write something that she deeply cares about, something that nobody else is writing. Eventually, unable to solve the mystery of Constantine’s disappearance, and through her growing acquaintance with Aibileen and with Minny, Skeeter begins to ponder the lives of the black maidservants in Mississippi homes, just as Kathryn Stockett must have done.

And that’s the main storyline, the tale of a collection of black maids’ memoirs (called Help) within the novel The Help. How does it get written? How to find women brave enough to speak of their experiences as maids with Skeeter, a woman from the ruling class? How does such a thing remain secret, given the terrible cost of discovery – a cost sure to be borne mainly by the maids themselves? And, will Skeeter ever get a husband? (Yes, this is a prominent subplot, which some readers will find a doleful distraction and others hail as realism, the recognition that any young woman of the time and circumstances would inevitably be concerned with that social imperative, no matter how pressing her growing awareness of societal racism might seem to her.) The result keeps the pages turning quickly amid the social observation. Stockett, especially by her rotating cast of three narrators, creates a series of cliffhanger chapter endings. There is pleasure, too, in the self-deprecation and maternal mockery of the gawky, frizzy Skeeter, and the guerilla mutterings of the chronically indignant Minny.

I enjoyed The Help. I was moved by the characters, especially by Aibileen and her clandestine loving of Mae Mobley and the “Little Man” that follows her into a tense and love-starved family. The stories of the maids, and the voices they tell them in, felt mainly quite real. Although the novel is set nearly 50 years in the past, something about the domesticity, the intimacy of the story – which might suggest an allergic reaction by male readers – has caused it to resonate, including for a certified Guy like me. There is little that is revolutionary or new for anyone who has read about (or remembers) the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, but The Help brings it home. We knew about the segregated lunch counters and the whites-only public drinking fountains, but I hadn’t considered this question: where did the black help go to relieve themselves? One of the most hateful bits of oppression in the novel is carried on by the vindictive Hilly Holbrook character. Her “hygiene initiative” is dedicated to promoting the installation of separate toilets for the help, so that the “well-known” predilection for disease and filth among Negroes might be contained. This project is the novel’s strongest example of the innumerable  indignities suffered by southern blacks. It drives a rift between girlhood friends Skeeter and Hilly, dramatically complicates life for Aibileen, and leads to a “Terrible Awful” retribution by Minny.

One irony of the novel is that the principal black characters seem better realized than Skeeter is. They are clearly more experienced, more worldly than she is, but it seemed to me that Stockett showed a better ear for the voices of the black women than in imagining a life more nearly like her own. This is one of the potential distractions of the book – the extent to which it mirrors the author’s own life, but transplanted to an earlier and more deeply conflicted decade. The author bio states that she (like Skeeter) grew up in Jackson, and the Mississippi capital is a strong and carefully described character in the novel. Stockett also spent years in New York working as an editor, as Skeeter dreams of doing, and speaks of her close relationship with her own childhood maid. Presumably, these bald details are meant to deflect criticism about her having ignorantly “appropriated the voices” of such women, and to reinforce her qualifications to write about the subject. (I imagine the book-club buzz: Well, it’s a novel, but it’s really a TRUE STORY!) When Stockett introduces timely historical references – the murder in Jackson of activist Medgar Evers, the Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of smoking, the violent admission of James Meredith as the first black student at the University of Mississippi, blithe  football fandom at “Ole Miss”, the assassination of JFK, Skeeter hearing Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” for the first time, Dr. King’s March on Washington, “some group called the Rolling Stones” (though never, oddly, a mention of Elvis) – it gives the expected jolt of recognition and a reminder of the wider background, but sometimes feels a bit forced. The book is relentlessly narrow, local and domestic in its focus, which is its strength and occasionally its weakness.

There were other little distractions. Several times, especially in Skeeter’s narration, there are expressions that weren’t likely heard in 1960s Mississippi; someone was “going to lose it”, another needed to “prioritize”, and a repentant would-be boyfriend pleaded to Skeeter that “I’m not that guy”. Chapter 25, jarringly, is the only one told in the third person. Presumably, this is meant to set up Jackson’s annual “Benefit” ball, the expected high point of Hilly’s social reign. This was an irritant. For one thing, it puts her corrupt hopes too much at the centre of the novel, and it is told from Skeeter’s point of view anyway and would’ve been better in her own voice. The chapter is too over-the-top, as the “man-stealing”, white-trash Celia finally makes her desperate, show-stopping way into Jackson society. Parts of Minny’s narrative, too, feel unlikely, such as her encounter with a crazed old flasher, or her misjudgement of one of Celia’s many secrets. (Or what, beyond breast size, the mysterious “Mister Johnny” actually sees in her). The biggest narrative pothole, though, and part of the reason the novel began to rattle and thump in the last third, was Minny’s “Terrible Awful” action and its eye-rolling, karmic effect on the ever-hygienic Miss Hilly.

What remains, though, is well worth the read, even for the men-folk out there. The Help , after a clunky stretch, finishes well, and mainly avoids the syrupy unreality of happily-ever-after. Skeeter, who has the grace to realize it, is better insulated from the consequences of the book that she and Aibileen (and to a lesser extent, Minny) attempt to write on the lives of Mississippi domestics in the 1960s. Still, she pays her price as well. The Help is well-written, and its main characters are sympathetic and courageous without being one-dimensional. It rarely sounds a preachy note (it shows, rather than tells) but offers an entertaining and enlightening picture of a social condition that, far from having disappeared with the wind, “is not even past,” as William Faulkner famously remarked.

The attention the novel and the subsequent film have gotten is obvious testimony to this: in a supposedly “post-racial” America – a laughable judgement, if the subject weren’t so bitterly important – the novel has become yet another talking point about this most challenging issue for the people of the United States. Kathryn Stockett has channelled the voices of remarkable women from among “these people”, and created Skeeter Phelan to help her readers to listen to them. The remarkable success of The Help came after a long and difficult road to publication, and my reading came only after resistance and protest.

Good things take time, gentlemen and ladies.

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