Monday, November 02, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Suppose you had been born in Jackson Mississippi in the 60s, had been mothered primarily by a black maid whom you felt closer to in many ways than you did your own mother. Now, you are a writer in New York City in the twenty-first century and you feel compelled to write about not only that particular woman, but about the many women who raised white children, loved white children, and in most cases were cold-shouldered by those same children once the children learned how they are supposed to behave towards blacks in Mississippi. You want to write about these women who have always been referred to by the rich white families they serve simply as the Help. How would you do it?

This is a question that Kathryn Stockett must have asked herself many times before she finally wrote The Help. She could, of course, simply have told her own story—told about her love for her Demetrie who had raised her, who had told her over and over (often enough when no one else would) that she was special, she was pretty, she was good. But Stockett decides on a different tack; she wants to tell the story of how the black maids really felt about their white employers. She wants to speak from the perspective and in the voices of those women. Certainly a brave undertaking, but is it also an audacious and presumptuous one?

I have to admit that I’m still asking myself these questions weeks after finishing this on the whole compelling and moving novel. The two main characters in the book are best friends—black  maids who have always cared for white families and their children.  The older women, Aibileen, is a very wise woman who has raised dozens of white babies, usually going on to the next home and to new babies as the children get older. The younger, Minny, is a powerful and sharp-tongued domestic who has an abusive husband and her own large family to care for, but makes her living cooking and cleaning for white families. She has a reputation as the best cook and the sassiest tongue in Jackson. At great risk to themselves, certainly risking their jobs, any job, and perhaps even their lives, they decide to tell their stories to Skeeter, a rich and rather idle young white woman who, in order to jump-start her writing career, has told a New York publisher that she can deliver a book, told by black maids, about what they really feel about their white employers. Skeeter is, on the whole well meaning, and she has, herself, been raised by a black maid whom she dearly loves, but she is also worse than careless and naïve as she begins her venture.

Skeeter has promised the publisher something she really cannot deliver, but eventually, getting Aibileen and Minny to speak for her with the circle of maids who have quickly and for good reason rejected Skeeter’s invitation to speak out, she is able to round up the stories of a dozen or so of these women.

Most of the chapters in the book are told through the voices and lives of Aibileen and Minny, both speaking in heavy black dialects. Their stories are incredible, and certainly I learned as I read just how naïve I was growing up in the 40s and 50s about what was really going on in the south (and in my own city had I had the eyes to see it). Of course, I had heard of the lynchings, the strict segregation of races, the early attempts at integration. But I certainly had no idea that the black domestic help were required to wear white uniforms, and that without their uniforms, they could not have gotten into the stores and offices they needed to go to in order to shop for their white families. Nor did I know that even the most loved of these domestic servants were required to use separate bathrooms (often in garages or other out-buildings separated from the houses they worked in).

At one point Aibileen begins to wonder what will happen to her and to the others whom she has persuaded to talk if the white women find out that they are telling the truth about what their lives are really like.
A woman ain’t gone beat you with a stick. Miss Hill wouldn’t pull on pistol on me. Miss Leefolt wouldn’t come burn my house down.
No, white women 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.
First thing a white lady gone to do is fire you. You upset, but you figure you’ll find another job, when things settle down, when the white lady get around to forgetting. You got a month a rent saved. People bring you squash casseroles.
But then a week after you lost your job, you get this little yellow envelope stuck in your screen door. Paper inside say Notice of Eviction. Ever landlord in Jackson be white and ever one got a white wife what’s friends with somebody. You start to panic some then. You still ain’t got no job prospects. Everywhere you try, the door slams in your face. And now you ain’t got a place to live.
Then it starts to come a little faster.
If you got a note on your car, they gone repossess it.
If you got a parking ticket you ain’t paid, you going to jail.
If you got a daughter, maybe you go live with her. She tend to a white family a her own. But a few days later she come home, say, “Mama? I just got fired.” She look hurt, scared. She don’t understand why. You got to tell her it’s cause a you.
Least her husband still working. Least they can feed the baby.
Then they fire her husband. Just another little sharp tool, shiny and fine.
They both pointing at you, crying, wondering why to done it. You can’t even remember why.
It’ll be a knock on the door, late at night. It won’t be the white lady at the door. She don’t do that kind a thing herself. But while the nightmare’s happening, the burning or the cutting or the beating, you realize something you known all your life: the white lady don’t ever forget.
And she ain’t gone stop till you dead.
This is a convincing and chilling book, and one that I think we should all read. And yet, just as I am uneasy about Skeeter’s risking not her own life and job but those of the women she is interviewing, I’m also uneasy about Stockett writing as though in the voice of these women. I would be much less uneasy were the author black. Maybe I’m being too critical; maybe this is how she had to write the book. If you read it, let me know what you think.

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