Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stocket - Book Review

Race has been at the center of the American conversation and consciousness since before we were a nation. Slavery was the central of a great Civil War that nearly destroyed us. The Civil Rights movement changed us irrevocably, opening opportunities and possibilities that many Americans of all races believed would remain closed and inviolate forever. I must admit (not confess) here that as a child, my experience included black women who worked in our house as well as Swiss and Irish women who cooked and cleaned for aunts of mine to whom I was close. As I read Kathryn Stockett's The Help, I found myself reflecting on these people who seemed so essential to a lifestyle now completely extinct in upper-middle class America. Who were they? What were their inner lives like? What did they think of us? Once, in the early 1950's while visiting in Switzerland, my mother sent us to spend a week or two on a farm owned by a woman named Ida, who had been a household servant in the home of my great-grandfather, a New York investment banker. I wonder what she thought about bringing the descendants of her former employer to live, even briefly, with her.

For anyone who came to self- and other-awareness during the period from the mid-fifties through the early seventies, issues of race and class are always part of the human equation. Reading The Help led me to reflect on my own fumbling attempts to reach across the the barriers imposed by our history of race, class, and education to try to understand not only what was happening, but how that felt to “the other.” The Help by Kathryn Stockett takes place in Jackson, Mississippi during the early sixties. The events taking place in the story are informed by those of the American Civil Rights movement in the background. Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus, the murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, the sit-ins at Woolworth, Martin Luther King's marches, and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy. In the foreground are the lives of six women, three white women and three black women who work for them as Help. 

Kathryn Stockett

Stockett has chosen to tell the story in the first person voices of women. The format of women's narrative has a long and honored place in literary history. The women Stockett has created to tell this story help to continue that tradition which, although presented in the form of a novel, carries the ring of truth in it. U asked a friend, a southern woman of a “certain age” how accurate a picture of the life of southern upper-middle class women this picture is. She looked at me and said, “That's the way it was.” We look on in horror as the novels vixenish villain Hilly mounts a campaign for all the members of the Junior League to build outside toilets for their help to stop the spread of germs while it becomes increasingly obvious that none of the white women would be able to function as hostesses or mothers without the efforts of their underpaid black “help.” We admire the wisdom, courage, and perseverance of Aibileen and Minny as they cook, clean, raise children, and help their nearly helpless employers cope with daily life without ever looking them in the eye or breaking the rules of their relationships.Stockett makes it clear that the relationship between maids and a family's children was often one of deep love.  She asserts that some household servants were treated with kindness and respect. Nevertheless, the daily indignities are impossible to overlook in this well wrought book.

The heroine of the piece is Skeeter, Hilly's oldest friend, secretary to the Junior League and an aspiring journalist. She comes up with the idea of telling the Help's stories in their own voices. At first she naively believes the black women will leap at the chance to tell their stories. Only after earning the trust of Aibileen do other maid begin to be willing to take the genuine risks involved. The story is often entertaining, enlightening, horrifying, and maddening as it turns our abstract awareness of the barriers as well as large and small indignities creating the racial divide. For those willing to read with an open mind and heart, it also teaches important lessons.

All this is not to say the book is without flaws. Skeeter's on-again off-again romance with the oil man son of the local state senator carries elements of melodrama often found in “women's” novels, although her relationship with her mother bears up well. Her increasing awareness of the problems she's creating for the black women, and her fear for their welfare over-rides her own sense of isolation begun when Hilly discovers a set of legal restrictions placed on black people in Mississippi in Skeeter's purse. Nevertheless, I never dismissed this book as “chick” lit, and found it to be both enjoyable and thought provoking. “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett has been a major best seller and an much read book club entry. Give it a try.