- The Help
- Putnam, 464 pp.
Mississippi Slow Burning
Hattie McDaniel, the Academy-Award winning actress who played Mammy in Gone with the Wind reportedly once said: “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”
Of course, she didn’t have much of a choice. For McDaniel in Hollywood, like many black women throughout the United States, the only role that white folks would accept her in was a domestic one. Mammy was expected to be chief bottle washer, maid, cook, and helpmeet. She could tell outlandish stories, sing spirituals or drop pearls of wisdom – that was part of her “character” – but speaking her true mind was out. She was, to all intents and purposes, the invisible woman.
The story of these unseen women forms the basis of Kathryn Stockett’s entertaining and problematic novel, The Help. Entertaining in that it is a yarn well spun, a tale of women’s lives that has its antecedents in books like the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood or The Joy Luck Club. Full of plot twists and sly humor, The Help is what you might call an old-fashioned page turner.
Problematic in that this page turner is set in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s, and is told from three points of view. Skeeter, an educated and prosperous young woman with no real plans for the future, is white. Aibileen and Minny, the titular help who reveal their stories, are black.
Now this, on the face of it, should not be a problem. Toni Morrison was happy to speak in the voice of white people in her recent book A Mercy and reviewers, including this one, were happy to accept the premise. There are no rules in novels (critics have fun superimposing those later).
And if you’re going to focus on the closeted, almost harem-like world of women in Jackson during the Kennedy years, choosing to speak with the voices of those who see all and hear all and ostensibly say nothing seems like a good choice.
Yet when an author treads into specific territories, the ground becomes awfully muddy. We’re happy to let writers play around with being a Roman slave of the first century or a prostitute of the eighteenth, but when it comes to depicting a person who has lived through the Holocaust or the Civil Rights era, ah, then I think we hesitate. Does an author, even in the services of fiction, have a right to appropriate these stories?
Stockett is smart enough to know she will be asked this question, and she tackles it in a number of ways. For one, she starts and finishes The Help with Aibileen’s narrative. Aibileen is middle-aged and without family – she lost a grown son to an industrial accident – but has raised seventeen white children as part of her duties. Maternal by nature, she nonetheless retains a dry sense of wit about her former charges:
And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years old. It’s always nice seeing the kids grown up fine.
Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, taking care of her daughter, Mae Mobley, and spends most of her time silently shielding the fat little girl from her mother’s verbal abuse.
Her friend Minny, on the other hand, has no problem with speaking her mind. Mother of five and married to an abusive drunk who works the night shift, Minny is known around Jackson as the best cook in the city and the one with the biggest mouth. If you can hear the theme tune of Gone With the Wind playing, Stockett can too:
If I’d played Mammy, I’d of told Scarlett to stick those green draperies up her white little pooper. Make her own damn man-catching dress.
After insulting the queen bee of the white hive, Miss Hilly, Minny is cast out from society, eventually ending up in the employment of a scatterbrained “white-trash” Miss Celia.
Between them, Aibileen and Minny have seen a lifetime of trouble and amusement, enough to fill a library. But Stockett leaves it up to Miss Skeeter to put the plot in motion. An aspiring writer, she decides to make her reputation by secretly interviewing black maids and compiling the experiences into one book. Maybe that will be her ticket to New York.
This being Mississippi at the height of segregation, library sit-ins and NAACP assassinations, complications invariably ensue. Miss Hilly, head of the Junior League and a filthily polite racist, begins to suspect Skeeter of radical notions and sets out to gun her and her conspirators down. This isn’t an idle threat. Though a white man’s fist hurts, Aibileen notes, a white woman’s slander has the power to destroy lives:
No, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with em.
It takes a great deal of wit and will to combat Miss Hilly – toilets feature prominently in this battle – even as all three narrators must continue to deal with their regular lives. A Marilyn Monroe look-alike loses her mind, a handsome boyfriend appears and disappears, and personal tragedies loom. A grand finale is needed to tie up all these threads, and that’s what is delivered (if a trifle too conveniently in a couple of instances).
Amidst all this hoopla, Stockett explicitly, some might say obviously, points out the narrators’ widening awareness of the larger world. She has Aibileen reading seminal books by black Americans, Skeeter growing her hair long, and Minny dealing with domestic violence.
Yet when it comes to Skeeter’s true dilemma – whether she is exploiting others for personal gain – Stockett chooses to nick the surface and move on. She is certainly careful to have Gretchen, a young maid, accuse Skeeter outright:
Another white lady trying to make a dollar off of colored people.
But it is an accusation that is never thoroughly investigated. Gretchen lasts all of a page before Aibileen firmly steps in to contradict such a notion. Similarly, to bolster Skeeter’s case, over the course of the novel Stockett ensures that her white woman becomes more of a transcriber than a writer, with the maids often dictating or typing their own stories for her to edit. They will share the profits at the end; Skeeter will merely be the enabler.
Ay, there’s the rub. For as much as The Help is a rollicking read, I still come back to the uneasy feeling that Skeeter, for all her awkward bumbling, is the narrator who truly frames the novel. Unsurprisingly, her story seems the most personal and the most convenient, the one most like Stockett’s life. Like Stockett, she grows up in Jackson and goes off to New York to make her fortune. And, like Stockett, she has the final edit on the narratives of others. Now I have never lived in the south, so I cannot answer to the truth of Aibileen and Minny’s voices and experiences. I can wonder, though, how black women of 1962 would respond to this 21st century version of themselves.
Is Minny with her outlandish catchphrases just another version of Mammy, updated for more sensitive times? Even if stories haven’t been told, is it fair for an outsider to tell them? What would Hattie McDaniel, who worked as that $7 maid before making it to Hollywood, think of this book?
These may not be fair questions to ask of a novel that sets out to entertain and does so with great panache, but, being a dour reviewer, I’ll ask them anyway.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.