Classic review: The Help
A young white woman kicks up a storm when she decides to interview the black maids in her Mississippi town.
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on March 4, 2009.] Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help, is about crossing lines – racial, societal, emotional – in Jackson, Miss., in 1962. It crosses your brain barrier, too, with its compulsively absorbing symphony of voices. One of her three narrators, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an aspiring writer recently graduated from “Ole Miss,” wins the attention of an abrasive New York editor with her idea to interview black maids in her hometown for a book about what it’s like to work for white women and raise their children.Skip to next paragraph
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Stockett makes the risks of this enterprise palpable by vividly evoking a time and place in which whites are persecuted for “integration violation” and blacks are fired or jailed for even unsubstantiated accusations of impropriety or theft, beaten and blinded for using white-only bathrooms, and murdered by the KKK for being “uppity.” The first two women who are brave and fed-up enough to sign onto Skeeter’s project share the novel’s narration.
Aibileen Clark has lovingly raised more than a dozen white children, always moving on “when the babies get too old and stop being color-blind.” Her current boss, Elizabeth Leefolt, is an old friend of Skeeter’s. But she’s an unloving mother, something Aibileen tries to make up for by indoctrinating her chubby charge: “You is kind ... you is smart. You is important.”
Since losing her son in an industrial accident, Aibileen “just didn’t feel so accepting anymore.” Yet she holds her tongue when her boss harps on her or smacks her daughter. She comments, “Sides stealing, worse thing you’n do for your career as a maid is to have a smart mouth.”
Stockett’s third narrator is Aibileen’s best friend, Minny Jackson, who’s been fired repeatedly for talking back to her bosses. If not for the devious intervention of Aibileen, Minny, “near bout the best cook in Hinds County, maybe even all a Mississippi,” would be unhirable after tangling with Skeeter’s nasty childhood friend, Hilly Holbrooke, head of the local Junior League chapter.