Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help (Amy Einhorn Books, 2009), is ambitious. It’s historical fiction, for starters. And it deals with race relations. And it’s 444 pages long.
But, despite this daunting undertaking, Stockett’s book reads more like a stroll in the park than a Matterhorn ascent. The author paces herself. She crafts her characters, taking her time to let them tell their stories. Help reveals itself and its purpose, slowly—but the narrative is immediately engaging and quickly addictive. Those 444 pages? This reader polished them off in four days.
Help, set in Jackson, Miss., during the early 1960s, is told from three perspectives: Aibileen and Minnie, who are both “domestics”—African-American women hired to keep house, cook, care for the children and any other tasks their white employers think up—and Skeeter, a white woman just out of college who dreams of being a journalist.
All three characters are outsiders to a degree. Aibileen is levelheaded and wants to keep the peace, but after her only son was injured as a laborer and then died as a result of neglect from his white employer, Aibileen feels “a bitter seed was planted inside me. And I just didn’t feel so accepting anymore.”
Minnie, on the other hand, is hot-tempered: Her downfall is her sharp tongue. Though she knows that talking back to the women for whom she works will lead to on-the-spot termination, she just can’t help herself (“Why I got to handwash when the power washer gone do the job? That’s the biggest waste a time I ever heard of.”), and as a result has been fired 19 times in the same town.
Skeeter was raised by a black maid: A woman more loving and understanding than Skeeter’s own mother. Though Skeeter—tall and awkward, hence her insect-like name—often felt a misfit, her maid Constantine seemed to accept her unconditionally. However, Skeeter returns from college to learn that Constantine has been let go, with no further explanation.
Meanwhile, Skeeter’s childhood friends have all become wives and mothers and busy themselves bossing around maids of their own while campaigning for every white family’s home to have a separate bathroom for the black employees so that the two races never need share a toilet seat. (Of this, Aibileen muses, “… Miss Leefolt’s building me a bathroom cause she think I’m diseased. And Miss Skeeter asking don’t I want to change things, like changing Jackson, Mississippi, gone be like changing a light bulb.”)
Through a chain of events, the three women find themselves drawn together on a secret project that will reveal the never discussed relationships between the towns’ black and white women, who live and work side-by-side and yet never truly know one another.
Some readers may question Stockett’s presumptive literary tool: adapting African-American speech patterns. After all, that author is white. But, as she explains in a note following the novel, she herself was raised by a family maid, a woman called Demetrie who she loved but never really knew. “I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family … I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book.”
But as much as Stockett’s story is a personal one, it has far more universal connotations. What’s impressive and moving about Help is that it serves to remind us that the Civil Rights movement was just gaining steam 50 years ago. Today, in 2009, we’ve elected an African-American president. We don’t use separate restrooms or busses or lunch counters. And yet, to get from that mindset circa 1962 to our 2009 outlook was a steep learning curve. Help addresses this, but it’s all in the minor details, the daily minutia: “‘Don’t forget the turkey, now,’ Miss Leefolt say. ‘And two cans of cranberry sauce.’ I smile. I only been cooking white Thanksgiving since Calvin Coolidge was President.”
Still, as momentous and important as this novel feels, it’s also warm and fun and often quintessentially Southern. Skeeter, the reluctant heroine, risks love, family and her place among the gentility that has always been her home. Yet, even as her ambitions and sense of justice see all these slip away, Skeeter maintains her delightfully acrid wit. That is to say, she gets in a few good zingers at the expense of her former country club friends: “‘And you call yourself a Christian,’ were Hilly’s final words to me and I thought, God, When did I ever do that?”
who: Kathryn Stockett
what: reading from her debut novel, The Help
when: Friday, March 13 (7 p.m. Free. 254-6734.)