[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.
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.
We learn much about Hilly’s evil machinations, including her “Home Help Sanitation initiative” for separate toilets “as a disease-preventative measure.” In fact, Hilly’s heinousness spurs the maids to open up to Skeeter.
Learning exactly what “the Terrible Awful” thing Minny did to Hilly before leaving her mother’s employ is just one reason to keep turning pages in this masterfully plotted novel – though it’s questionable whether it could effectively stymy this powerfully nasty woman.
Stockett skillfully interweaves her characters’ stories, capturing their courage, fear, and pride in speaking about “How we too scared to ask for minimum wage. How nobody gets paid they Social Security.... How we love they kids when they little.... And then they turn out just like they mamas.”
She evokes an insular community in which relentless summer heat, “like a hot water bottle plopped on top of the colored neighborhood,” is another oppressor. “The Help” is anchored in reality with references to historical events, including Medgar Evers’s murder, and domestic details, including uses for Crisco that go way beyond pie crusts and fried chicken.
Stockett sustains suspense with multiple plotlines. What happened to Skeeter’s beloved maid, Constantine, who disappeared while she was away at college? Why is Minny’s new boss so listless and secretive? And, of course, will the women suffer repercussions for their project?
A native of Jackson, Stockett says she wrote “The Help” because she regrets never having asked her beloved family maid “what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family.” In an afterword, she confesses her fear of “crossing a terrible line,” especially in “writing in the voice of a black person.”
A book driven by guilt could have been mawkish, but Stockett’s ear for both outrage and humor and her earnest efforts to correct stereotypes pay off – despite her decision to convey only black voices in dialect, with nary a dropped “g” among her generally less sympathetic Southern white characters.
By addressing not just injustice but the “inexplicable love” that flourishes between servants and their employers, “The Help” arouses both admiration and indignation.
Moral righteousness at past transgressions, however, is easy. The question is whether readers will recognize the troubling power dynamic between employers and their less privileged – often immigrant – domestic help that often still exists, despite civil rights advances of the past 55 years. As Skeeter says of her inflammatory book, “please let some good come out of this.”
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.