Let me preface this review by saying that I started this book at 8 p.m. last night and did not stop until I finished. I do this from time to time and refuse to let myself look at the clock because I know it will probably be 2:30 a.m. However, I am on Spring Break and was feeling indulgent. The book was captivating, but parts of it gave me pause.
The story, set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, is told by three very different characters: Aibileen, an older black maid raising Miss Leefolt’s child Mae Mobley; Minny, a sassy, back-talking young maid with an abusive husband; and Miss Skeeter, the white woman who is friends with Junior Leaguers, including Miss Leefolt and Miss Hilly Holbrook, a dastardly, “duh, duh, DUH” kind of character. Miss Skeeter’s friends both left Ole Miss to get married while Miss Skeeter graduates from Ole Miss without what we southerners call her MRS. degree. Her mother is vastly disappointed, setting up a trust fund for her daughter in an attempt to lure men to marry her extremely tall, frizzy-haired daughter.
Aibileen and Minny are close friends and vital personalities. Aibileen has lost her only son through an industrial accident and struggles with her loss but ultimately loves her charge, Mae Mobley and seeks to educate her about color lines. Minny has five kids and has been fired as a maid more times than she wants to admit. After her most recent firing, her employer’s mother blackballs her, telling women in the town she is a thief. Minny does something awful that eventually comes out in the story and after “the incident,” she finds work in the odd, trashy, enigmatic Celia Foote’s home. Miss Celia Foote has been blackballed by Miss Hilly Holbrook basically for being trashy, but also because Miss Celia Foote is married to Miss Holbrook’s former beau.
These women, both maids and their employers, are separated by the kitchen door but so much more. Minny is nervous because Miss Celia Foote doesn’t preserve the lines between the two women:
She just don’t see em. The lines. Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly.
The lines, as she astutely observes, are not simply race lines but also class lines. However, Aibileen, a philosopher of sorts, understands what so many are unwilling to, that even the lines between employee/employer aren’t there:
They’re just positions, like on a checkerboard. Who work for who don’t mean nothing.
Some folks just made [the lines] up, long time ago. And that go for the white trash and the so-ciety ladies too.
Miss Skeeter begins to sense this, too. Early on, she is uncomfortable with Hilly’s Home Help Sanitation Initiative, a “disease-preventative measure,” she calls it. Hilly wants the help to use different restroom facilities than their employers. Miss Skeeter makes a sarcastic comment, but Hilly puts her in her place, informing her that should she joke around, she may lose some of her rights within the League. Miss Skeeter wants to be a writer, and an editor at Harper & Row in New York tells her she will read her ideas to help her get started but only if they are really something about which she feels passionately. As she watches the way her friends treat the help, she begins to feel more than just uncomfortable and wants to do something about the situation.
But how? All around these women, the Civil Rights movement is in full swing. Medgar Evers is shot down in his front yard in front of his family, five miles away from the black neighborhood where Minny and Aibileen live. Robert Brown, a maid named Louvenia’s grandson, is beaten severely and blinded when he accidentally goes into the wrong restroom. Martin Luther King, Jr. is on the march. These events seem to barely scratch the surface of consciousness in the white women’s minds. The message, though, is clear. If a woman or man of color steps out of line, there will be severe and sometimes deadly consequences.
When Miss Skeeter decides to write narratives of the maids, she understands the danger – but not fully. For a sheltered, young white girl, Miss Skeeter has no real experience with the fear, contempt, and anxiety with which the maids live. It takes a threat to the existence of another maid that finally pushes the others to work with Miss Skeeter. To me, though, Skeeter is just a bit too careless with the lives of these women – once, leaving her satchel with interview notes at Hilly’s house and later in the novel, divulging her work and secret to her beau, Stuart. Stuart appears to be not at all trustworthy, particularly when he’s sipping a bit too much alcohol. However, in the confines of The Help, nothing too bad happens to the main characters, although I was certainly not pulling for that.
The other main issue is that none of the women really question Miss Skeeter’s motivation. No one stops and says, why is she doing this? Aibileen believes in either her ambition or benevolence, or a combination of the two. Minny certainly doesn’t seem to trust her but feels a bit better getting her stories out in the open. There is only one dissenting voice in the group: Gretchen, and Miss Skeeter describes her interview with her, saying
She was trim in her uniform dress. She wore lipstick, the same color pink me and my friends wore. She was young. She spoke evenly and with care, like a white person. I don’t know why, but that made it worse.
Gretchen leans back in her chair, and Miss Skeeter
thought she was thinking about a story to tell. But she said, “Look at you. Another white lady trying to make a dollar off of colored people.”
The scene is short. Aibileen is livid and kicks Gretchen out of her house, but the scene is there. Miss Skeeter doesn’t see these women as equal, and Gretchen bothers her, not simply because she is rude, but also because she is too like a white person, wearing a color lipstick Skeeter herself wears, speaking just a little too well for her comfort. These women are “the other” – different, unknowable. It’s a telling scene and one in which Miss Skeeter does not appear too different from her friends. The only distinction is that Miss Skeeter is uncomfortable with Hilly and Elizabeth’s out-and-out racism, never examining her own.
The book is published anonymously, but it doesn’t take long for the white women in Jackson to pick up on themselves in the story. Yet, Skeeter leaves the women alone to fend for themselves when the bomb drops. Minny has included some insurance in the book by putting in personal details about Hilly that will ensure Hilly denies the book being about Jackson. However, Hilly’s character, as Stockett wrote her, does not seem like the type to let it drop. The book itself does, though, ending without the full ramifications I think may have ensued. No, Skeeter gets her happy ending, moving to New York to work in a publishing house. This, in itself, seems typical – the black maids, ironically, granting her permission to leave her guilt at the door for taking an opportunity they would not be afforded as writers and contributors to the book.
I don’t agree that Stockett cannot write fictionalized black maids in the 60s. If that were true, then all we’d have on bookshelves would be rather dull memoirs. However, I think she also writes conveniently, painting Skeeter as the benevolent savior of these women, writing about the good stories and the bad, never fully examining the implications of what she is writing. Of course, many of these maids were treated well and with respect. And comments on several review posts elsewhere are full of defensive people, arguing that his/her nanny was treated as part of the family. That’s not the point. The point is that these maids, these women were not seeking to be treated “as part of the family.” They had their own families, their own homes, many times their own children and ties to their communities. As Ms. Stockett herself points out, this novel was an apology of sorts, for never having asked her own live-in maid about her life, her desires, her experiences. But to attempt to reconcile this inherent prejudice, this assumption that these women wanted to be treated as family, is, to me, racism. These women didn’t seek fulfillment from the families for whom they worked. They sought work to support themselves. Did many love these families? Of course. No doubt. However, these fine lines and distinctions are ones I think are important to discern, both as individuals and the collective.
The most beautiful aspect of this book, to me, is the exploration of womanhood, in all its forms. The compassion Minny comes to have for Miss Celia, the humanity of Aibileen, even the deviousness of Hilly, and the indecision of Elizabeth – all are composites of women, of humans, and I think Stockett explores these masterfully.