by Kathryn Stockett
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009
Starting with today’s post, I’ve added a new age category: young women. Books under this heading are appropriate for the age group I like to think of as “grown-up girls.” They’re mature teens and college students, the oldest of the next generation of women. They’re not yet independent adults, but they’re capable of reading, understanding, and processing adult literature.
Growing up, I understood very little of the long-term impact of slavery on our nation’s racial landscape. Raised initially in an integrated community with friends and classmates of many races, I was familiar with the term Jim Crow but thought segregation (both legalized and de facto) and racism were a thing of the past.
Then, in my middle school years, my family moved to an all-white, rural Southern town–and I came face-to-face with de facto segregation and modern-day white paternalism and supremacy. Both offended and curious at the same time, I tried to dig deeper but met with little success. Our school curriculum didn’t address slavery or its legacy in any meaningful way, and neither did the adults in the community. When I asked questions of white adults who had lived through Jim Crow, they usually just stared (sometimes angrily) or gave vague non-responses.
It was a different matter when I got to college, where I loaded up on classes and books about race and the South. When I got out of college, I kept reading on the subject (in fact, it was Freedom’s Daughters, one of those post-college books, that inspired me to start this blog).
And that brings me to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I heard about the book soon after it came out; when I had finished it, I was so inspired that I immediately read Susan Tucker’s Telling Memories Among Southern Women, the nonfiction book that had galvanized Stockett.
Set in 1960s Mississippi, this novel is the story of three women. Aibilene is a black maid in her 60s who specializes in caring for young children. Her best friend Minny, also a black maid and the county’s best cook, is roughly a generation younger. And Skeeter is an upper-class white woman, recently returned home after graduating from college.
All three women are in transition. Aibilene, recently hired by Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, is grieving the recent death of her 24-year-old son. Minny, unable to find normal work because of her reputation for “mouthing off” and a smear campaign conducted by Skeeter’s friend Hilly, is secretly teaching the lower-class Celia how to keep house for a wealthy husband. For her part, Skeeter is struggling to reconcile her own awkwardness and career ambitions with intense social pressure to become a typical Mississippi belle.
The three become more than just passing acquaintances when Skeeter, growing increasingly piqued by racial injustice and social constraints, invites Aibilene to help her compile a no-holds-barred collection of black maids’ stories about their white employers. Aibilene, embittered by white indifference to the accident that killed her son, agrees and pulls in Minny and several other friends.
As they work in secret to create the book, the three women find themselves learning much about themselves, each other, and the true stories–and natures–of their friends, family members, and employers.
What I love most about this book is how real it feels. The first-person narration has something to do with it, but Stockett has also managed to craft a story that transitions smoothly between deep heartbreak, the mundanities of daily life, and laugh-out-loud humor without ever seeming maudlin or melodramatic. I think it also helps that much of the book resonates with my own experiences. I’ve felt or witnessed firsthand the tight corset of Southern social mores, the dismissive stereotypes tossed out by Skeeter’s mother, and Hilly’s special brand of insidious, racist cruelty.
But what makes the book inspiring is how the three women rise above it all. Aibilene’s quiet, steely resolve is amazing, the more so for the heartbreak behind it. Minny’s courage is equally so; despite her initial (and very understandable) reluctance, she ends up not only participating in Skeeter and Aibilene’s project but also leaving her abusive husband. Skeeter, meanwhile, meets the man of her dreams–and he actually proposes. But when maintaining the relationship means hiding her role in the book, Skeeter chooses integrity, single womanhood, and a literary career in New York.
Even the novel’s most problematic aspect inspires me. As Stockett herself admits in an afterword, the book is “too little, too late,” a long-overdue atonement for her wealthy white family’s part in taking advantage of and perpetuating Mississippi’s Jim Crow sytem.
In a sense, Stockett’s right: it’s too late to help her family’s black servants, or any of the other men and women who suffered under Jim Crow. But it’s not too late to educate people like me, to help us see another brick or two in the massive wall the black community has had to surmount in this nation, and to help us understand why we must keep tearing down the wall and make sure never to rebuild it.