Friday, September 10, 2010

The Help

The Help
Kathryn Stockett

I was surprised by how much I liked this book. Stockett is a good story-teller. She has a wide cast of characters, with diverse personalities and she manages to keep them all true to themselves. The story unfolds through the voices of the main characters who take turns telling the tale, each from her own perspective. Men are in the background in this book. It is the story of women domestics in the Deep South of the 60s and the women who hire them.
There are many characters, and unfortunately, some of them become caricatures in the rush to tell the story. The strong black women who hold together their families while working long hours for demanding, spoiled employers are the best developed. Each has her own private tragedy and is supported by the others in the community. Each takes a risk when she decides to take part in the project that drives the plot of the book: to contribute her personal stories to a book about what it is like to be a domestic in a white home in Mississippi.
Stockett found it harder to write sympathetically about the white women, and they are less distinguishable as they spend their days at the pool and tennis courts and playing bridge. Miss Hilly, especially, the leader of her coterie, is one-dimensional, the arch-typical insensitive, self-centred woman, leading the campaign to keep the black help out of white bathrooms, alternately hounding the help and shunning the white women who have crossed swords with her. Apart from her love of power, her motives are not explored.
The secret of Miss Hilly's power seems to lie in the passivity and cowardice of the other white women. Stockett takes an interesting look at the existence of female cliques and their loyalty system, which are not specific to the south.
The shallowness of the lives of Southern women has been shown before, since Gone With the Wind. The mother of Skeeter, the protagonist, wants nothing more for her daughter than for her to be shorter, have better hair, and to get married. Miss Celia, the 'white trash' woman who has married into Jackson society, expends all her energy on trying to be accepted into Miss Hilly's group of friends.
The most developed character is Skeeter, freshly graduated from university and in search of a career. On a whim, she decides to write a book about the black help who raise the white children of her community. As the book progresses, and she learns their stories, she matures and realizes the responsibility she has undertaken for these vulnerable women. Her childhood friends turn against her when she disagrees with Miss Hilly, and she examines herself and realizes that she has values which she cannot compromise. Despite her physical attraction for her suitor, Stuart Whitworth, she sees that she could never spend a lifetime with him and fall into the mold of a southern belle.

Stockett is good at creating her setting: the beauty of her father's farm, the summer heat, the country club, the bus ride to the black side of town, the snobbery among the white society. When she and her parents are invited to the influential Whitworths for supper, the description of her father wearing "his black funeral suit" sums up succinctly the awkwardness of the farmer looking his best when he comes to town. Rosa Parks has just taken her famous bus ride, and people are talking about the big rally in Washington.

Stockett's strength is story-telling and the impact of her book lies in the stories she reveals about the black and white lives which are intertwined in the intimacies of child rearing and house-keeping, and yet divided by the gulf of colour and the history of slavery.
The winners are revealed to be the losers and vice versa in this book. While the white women benefit from the rules of Southern society, they are alike in their insensitivity and shallowness. The black women all have their individual heartaches and yet survive through personal strength and community support.

Among those maids who decide to tell their stories is Minnie, whose fiery temper gets her into trouble, but whose warm heart and common sense are a support for her misfit employer. A former boss gave her a week's vacation, and when Minnie came back to work, she found that the family had moved out of town and had not given Minnie prior notice because they were afraid she would find other employment while they still had need of her. Minnie's courage to tell her stories is rewarded when the royalties from the book allow her to leave her abusive husband.

Another maid is Yule May, whose son is blinded by a lynch mob. And there is Abileen, who helps Skeeter with her household hints column in the local paper and is her contact with the rest of the black community. Abileen has raised seventeen white children, her maternal nature has loved them all, but the forces of society have turned them all into racists of some degree. The anomaly of white women entrusting the raising of their children to black maids is not overlooked.

These maids are the glue that makes this society work. One of them has a special treasure: a thank you note handed to her at the funeral of one of her employers. "Thank you for making my baby stop hurting," it read.

In the end, these risk takers are rewarded, the racist Miss Hilly is silenced to some degree, and Skeeter, who has outgrown Jackson society, gets a job in New York. The threads are tied up and we are relieved of the suspense created by the very real risks taken by these women. It is all a bit too good to be true, but it's always nice to have a happy ending.