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Stockett's "The Help"
December 8, 2013 - Jodelle Greiner
Bittersweet was the word that came to mind when I finished “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett.
"The Help" is the literary phenomenon that was made into a movie and won Octavia Spencer an Oscar for best supporting actress for playing the black maid Minny Jackson. I haven't seen the movie, just the promos, which made the movie out to be a comedy and are a bit misleading about the book. "The Help" has humor — I laughed so hard over Minny's vacuuming the bear — but the subject matter of changing the status quo in the South is deadly serious.
The book is set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, and chronicles the sharp divide between whites and the black maids who clean, cook and raise their employers' children, in a separate but "equal" world.
Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan grew up white with a black maid named Constantine, but when Skeeter comes home with a journalism degree, Constantine is gone and no one will tell her anything. Certainly not her mother, and certainly not the black maids her married friends employ.
While trying to crack the wall of silence and find her beloved Constantine, Skeeter takes a job writing the Miss Myrna household advice column - the only problem is she knows nothing about housework. In desperation, Skeeter begs her friend Elizabeth's maid Aibileen to answer the questions which she writes up for the newspaper. While talking with Aibileen, Skeeter gets an idea - write a book about what Aibileen, Minny and the maids do all day, what they see working for their employers, how the whites treat their black help, including having to use a separate bathroom so the white family does not get the diseases they believe blacks all carry. But Aibileen refuses to cooperate, telling Skeeter, "I do this with you, I might as well burn my own house down." Then Minny comes up with an idea that just might work.
Aibileen has good reason to be scared of writing down things that are never spoken or acknowledged. Having lived in Texas for 16 years, I realize the South is still a different world. "The Help" takes the reader back to a time when a book like Skeeter's would have been unthinkable. This is the age of the sit-ins, of the Civil Rights marches, Dr. Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. The days when a black man could be beaten for using a white bathroom and a black maid could be charged with theft and jailed without proof. Stockett has "The Help" move at a leisurely pace; it reflects the way life is in the Deep South. Even a hundred years after the Civil War, white Southerners were still trying to hang onto their old way of life.
Complicated people inhabit Stockett's world, like Minny, who mouths off to her employers, but has to watch her step at home, and Skeeter's mother and Hilly Holbrook, who allow black women to raise their children, but want to keep blacks in their proper place. Stockett knows how to write irony; there are the Southern women raised to, above all else, keep up appearances and never "act ugly" while they perpetuate very ugly myths. Hilly, one of Skeeter's friends, seems to be comic relief, until you realize the lengths to which she will go to uphold her beliefs.
Even though it was written about a different time, "The Help" should be read because Stockett illustrates how we're not so different. "The Help" is a subtly drawn book with rich details and real characters trying to find a way to change their world; women trying to cope with a world in which their roles were not clearly defined any more. And once they start down the path of exposing the truth, there's no going back and everyone will face consequences. There is no change without pain, that's why I felt the ending was bittersweet and realistic.
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