Monday, July 19, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Black. White. It's an issue that has plagued this country since its inception and an issue Stockett dives head into in her novel, The Help. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960's, the first character the reader encounters is Aibileen, a middle-age woman who specializes in child care, as Aibileen herself tells the reader, “Taking care a white babies, that's what I do”. Currently Aibileen is working for Miss Leefolt, who happens to be best friends with Skeeter. Skeeter left college two years prior with the one thing she didn't need (a double degree in English and Journalism) and without the one thing she was expected to get (a husband) much to her mother's dismay. Right before graduating from college, Skeeter sent a resume to publishing house in New York to apply for an editor's position. Eventually a female senior editor replies, advising Skeeter to go out and get whatever job a newspaper will offer her. Unfortunately, the one job the local Jackson newspaper would give a woman was writing the housecleaning column. The problem is, like all proper Southern ladies wealthy enough to afford help, she has no idea how to clean anything. To fix this little issue, Skeeter asks Aibileen to help give cleaning answers she can turn into articles. At first Aibileen is uncomfortable speaking so frequently with her employer's friend. But as the interviews go on, she begins to speak more freely.

One day, while speaking proudly of her late son, Aibileen accidentally mentions that he had been starting to write a book to Miss Stein, the editor from New York, who tells her to go for it. Skeeter shyly tries to ask Aibileen for her help, who eventually agrees after much deliberation. Skeeter also enlists Aibileen's help to try and find other maids to tell their stories. Minny, Aibileen's younger best friend and another main character the novel follows, is the second maid to agree to help. The book against all odds gets accepted by Miss Stein to be published and when they should be celebrating their success, Aibileen, Skeeter and Minny really start to worry. Though they changed the names of everyone involved and the location, they are still frightened to death (because that may be their punishment if they are discovered) that people will be able to read between the lines and guess who wrote it and which maids told their stories.

The novel switches every few chapters to alternate between the perspectives of these three unique women as they work their way through this dangerous joint project. It is this intense focus on them as individuals that really makes the novel stand out. Stockett tells each part of the story through the mind of one of the three women living it. This lends raw honesty to the story as the reader experiences their daily struggles, opinions, laughs and tears. From Skeeter, the reader gets self-awareness and a growing confidence herself and her own opinions. Skeeter is the tall-awkward girl who has never had a boyfriend before. She thinks differently than those in her world and doesn't see the color as definitely as they do. But Skeeter gains more awareness of her own color and how it has separated her from the maids she is interviewing stating at one point, “But the dichotomy of love and disdain living side by side is what surprises me. Most are invited to attend the white children's weddings, but only if they're in their uniforms. These things I know already, yet hearing them from colored mouths, it is as if I am hearing them for the first time.” (258) She, for the first time, is able to hear the perspective of those who have been silenced for so many years.

One of these voice is quiet loud and it is that of Minny. Minny joins the project begrudgingly at the request of Aibileen. Even though Minny eventually agrees, she has reservations about telling the truth to a white woman as she has been fired many times for doing just that. She tells Aibileen, “What am I doing? I must be crazy giving the sworn secrets a the colored race to a white lady...Feel like I'm talking behind my own back”. Throughout the novel, Minny's more skeptical attitude towards white women is challenged by Miss Celia, the woman who hires her after she is fired and blackballed from maid service by her previous employer (Miss Hilly). Miss Celia was white-trash until she met her husband and her brought her to live in his upper class world and has no idea how to boss around a maid the way Minny's prior employers did. She does everything differently including wanting to be friends with Minny, which makes Minny highly uncomfortable. Though Minny seems tough, underneath the gruff behavior is fear for herself and her family if anyone is to find out about her role in the project.

Aibileen shares Minny's fears but has a little less to lose, as she has already lost her son. Treelore was a bright boy whose intelligence was waste on the manual labor job he was limited to by his race and which eventually killed him. Aibileen is also frightened of what could happen if anyone finds out who wrote the book, but she is more trusting in Skeeter and quickly realizes Skeeter is different from all the other white women that she has known. Though Skeeter is technically the writer of the book, it is Aibileen that at the center of it all. The novel opens and closes with chapters of Aibileen and she embodies elements of both Minny and Skeeter as both a maid and as the reader later learns a writer as well. She also serves the role of the caretaker, as she self-proclaims, and at times mothers both of her younger friends. In this role she even seems a hopeful glimmer of connection with Miss Leefolt, “I spec we bout shared us a moment, me and Miss Leefolt, looking out the window at the kids we both love. It makes me wonder if things done changed just a little”. This moment is quickly shattered but still shows the hope Aibileen possesses to not only gain equality but a basic human connection with those she has been divided from. Afterall, Aibileen loves all the white children she has cared for as her own.


  1. Hmmm, I'm not sure this book is my type of read or not, but it definitely has my curiosity. I may have to pick it up and give it a try.

  2. It definitely draws you in, I think it may surprise you.