Perhaps there is something in the air of the South which makes passions burn with a fiery intensity, love, hatred, betrayal, justice, anger, jealousy, and dreams. The world of Jackson Mississippi in 1963 is one in the middle of the most momentous of transformations: when what was once impossible becomes inevitable, where life in a moment of time shifts to an entirely new world, and where the genie of the past can never be put back into its bottle. This is the story of The Help by Kathryn Stockett: to look at the lives of the maids of Jackson Mississippi, in the courageous, daring, and unprecedented action of daring to write a book about their lives and stories. It is an endless complicated tale, one of both love and hatred, one that
One of my favorite aspects of the book is the way it uses the narrative voice of the author. Plenty of books breathe the accent of their characters: one that comes to mind the most handily is The Red Badge of Courage, whose characters have the accent of the North a cry woven throughout the pages. But a book might have these accents, but will always set them into the framework of the narrative voice of standard English. What’s a striking difference with The Red Badge of Courage is the way that the accent percolates into the narrative text as well: a chapter about a black woman will also include her accent in the narrative. It’s a unique and beautifully done element, and one which must have been tremendously difficult for Stockett to do consistently, to so often adopt, to become, the voices of different people.
But it makes sense given her tremendous gift for characters: Skeeter, Aibileen, Miss Celia, Hilly, Minny, Lou Anne, the master of Louvenia, Skeeter’s mother, Johnny, Senator Whitsworth, his son Stuart: they are vividly distinct, and the book manages some excellent character arcs, such as the evolution of Skeeter as she realizes just how much fear and suffering weigh down the black maids of her life, how the threat of terror always hangs over their head and threatens to quite literally exterminate them. Or there is the reverse evolution of Hilly, who transforms from being simply a mildly annoying, superficial, unpleasant woman into the very symbol of evil, cruelty, and vindictiveness. And there are some who are revealed, such as Lou Anne, who seems like such an airhead in the beginning but who we grow to realize has a heart of gold and genuinely cares about her maid.
Each of them has such a brilliant characterization: Skeeter, young, optimistic, hopeful, blunt, who grows increasingly to realize that she doesn’t fit into the world where she was born, Aibileen, caring, conscientious, proud, but capable of the most deep and tremendous love, Minny, harsh, irascible, but courageous and brave to a fault, honorable, and who truly cares despite her best attempts not to, Senator Whitsworth with his old boy style, his awkward but real love for his son, his hidden sensitivity and shame about Mississippi’s segregation and racial terror, the stubborn, often seemingly shallow, but endlessly devoted and bottomless reservoir of love of Skeeter’s mother, the blunt, hardworking, down-to-earth Stuart with his struggles with betrayal and deep hurt that he nurses, Miss Celia, casually dismissed as a bimbo, lazy, and stupid but whose courage, verve, elan, loyalty, and determination gradually come to light through the course of the story, and her husband who just wants his wife to be happy, who we live in such fear of until we discover him. Of all of them, Celia, with her near child-like innocence and the way that we gradually come to know the reasons for her oddities, and the way that a real relationship between her and Minny blossoms.
And in providing these characters, it makes for the fear that they face as they do their work, and the dreams that they harbor, deeply, almost painfully, personal and powerful. Yule May consigned to prison because she stole a tiny, ultimately worthless, ruby to try to get money to send her two sons to university: her story and the way that the church rallies around the family to gather the money to send the kids to college in the end, provides such a powerful feeling of community and solidarity. The fear that plays across the maids as they struggle with the idea of writing their stories, the knowledge of what might happen to them if they’re found out, and yet their determination, in the face of never ending humiliation, to tell the world what they’ve experienced, to make a change, to make a difference: it is a wondrously heart-warming tale, a story that makes them come to life as people.
This human side of the story has its eloquence too in how The Help avoids easy categorizations of black and white, of merely being a condemnation of Southern society: it is written by a woman from Mississippi after all, and the society she grew up in is not simply one of hatred and antagonism between black and white. It is a far more complicated story, of what love and affection is like when there are such power disbalances, between Aibileen and the little girl Mae who she loves so deeply and tries to help raise to become a different woman than the white girl who loves her black nurse but then grows up in the end racist and bigoted like others, between Skeeter and Constantine, between Lou Anne and Louvenia, between Celia and Minny. The way that love exists despite, or even because, of the lines of racial segregation in southern society, how they manifest themselves, the genuine ties of affection, of Aibileen bouncing a little girl on her knees as she calls her mama and fears her biological mother: it’s a beautiful story, one that shows the humanity of people and the beauty of friendship despite its obstacles.
It’s always hard to comment on the nature of social justice and racial relations today and talk about a book like this, but to me it seems like the brief ideal around 2010 when American society was convinced that racism could simply be ended through education, that a unified alliance of well-meaning whites and blacks could make real change, and where it was the social relationship between blacks and whites that needed to be changed, and that the need to transform society as a whole was less pressing than it is thought today: in a word, it was a time where it thought that a simple act of reconciliation could ultimately cure America’s racial problem. Perhaps I am cynical, but I wonder if a book like The Help could be written today: whether it would be accused of valorizing too much Skeeter as the white hero who enables the poor maids to get a voice, the accusation of the “white savior” bandied about. This reconciliatory view to me is best expressed in what the author strives to have as her central point – to reveal that in the end, underneath the skin, that we aren’t all so very different, me and you.
It also leaves largely unexplored the class dimension of racism in the South, or indeed across the US: racism in the book is a product of the color line, and the interactions can be written almost entirely as just the nexus of whites and blacks. But the whites of the book are universally wealthy: they have the wealth to hire maids, to own nice, modern homes, even in some cases plantations. It deals less with the system of racism, of the way that the elite and wealthy use race as a way to craft a controlled, divided, and compliant work force, where the poor white man and the poor black man see each other as enemies rather than as the exploited proletariat of society.
Another aspect of race, and one that seems like a curious parable of today’s disputes over transsexuals and transgender questions, is that of the one-drop rule and people of white appearance but black ancestry: Skeeter’s former maid, Constantine, has a daughter who due to white ancestry in her family, looks completely, absolutely, white: when she comes down South from Chicago, she is assumed to be white, and easily accepted into white society for the briefest moment, until they realize that she is actually black: what a stunning transformation it makes, and she immediately is told to leave, to use the servant’s entrance, and treated as an intruder. It isn’t in the end the appearance that counts: can be completely white, look completely white, be able to talk without an accent that would make her recognizable as black, and it isn’t enough. There is a divide between external appearance and race which our society is not used to confronting.
But beyond this question of whether racial reform and social justice in the US today is compatible with the view expressed by The Help, it is also fascinating to look at one of the big debates that exists today: social isolation and social bonds in a time of tremendous change and conflicting views. It is a mark of pride for some people to not associate with racists and others whose views are opposed to their own, and it is a real political question of to what degree these people can be accommodated in the political system and social life. In a sense, The Help is a mirror of this, since desegregationist and social reformers like Skeeter are the ones who are the prominent minority, not racists: and Skeeter’s actions require tremendous courage to go against the ethos of her family, her entire social circle, and her community: her ostracism is all but complete and total as a result, and effectively leaves her no choice, if she is to build a life, but to move to New York. Political disagreements in a time of rapid political change, when there are inherently contradictory, deeply felt, moral principles and values at stake, are forces that break apart friendships and families, and the isolation that Skeeter experiences is a brilliant examination of the pain that this can bring.
I doubt that for myself I would have the courage of Skeeter: for me my ties to my family and friends would trump whatever my actual political thoughts would be. And you can see this perspective easily throughout the book, with characters like Skeeter’s father or even Senator Whitsworth, who privately find the system of segregation and racial terror that exists in Mississippi to be morally unpalatable, but have to keep their thoughts to themselves: they now the price they would pay if they said as such in front of the broader community.
It’s hard to talk about a book like The Help without thinking about the most famous book on racial justice of all time: To Kill a Mockingbird. And in both, the victory is an indirect one. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the trial is lost but the very closeness of its defeat, and the absurdity of how clearly rigged it is, is the victory. In The Help, many of the maids continue to toil in an oppressive system which continues to put them in an inferior position to their masters, and although individuals, such as Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter triumph, formally little has changed. But what has changed is the mentality, the future: both books are the promise of a brighter, better, future. The Help weaves a tale of hope, of the triumph of human solidarity, of love, a dramatic tale that gives lessons that still apply to our times. A thoroughly beautiful book.