Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is set during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is an intimate narrative exploring the relationships between women and the chaos that happens when positions of the privileged whites are challenged. The book is told in turn by three very different women, who, through a series of events, are pulled together to tell the stories of the inhumanities suffered by black servants. Miss Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (a privileged white woman herself) home from college, and unsure what to do with herself, is driven to compose an exposé on what really happens in discourse between whites and their servants. She implores the assistance of two black women, Minny (the prototypical “sassy” black woman, whose mouth gets her into too much trouble) and Aibileen. Aibileen is perhaps the most well-rounded character, grandmotherly and loving, but able to embrace the anger that comes from witnessing the mistreatment of her current ward, Mae Mobley, the daughter of Elizabeth Leefolt.
Miss Hilly, the type of woman we all love to hate, is central to the book. She is saccharine in a most unpleasant way and lacks self-awareness. She fundraises for the “Poor Starving Children of Africa” while treating the African-Americans of Jackson, Miss., as if they are subhuman. She sets Minny up as a thief (who exacts her revenge, referred to throughout the book as The Big Awful—and boy, is it awful) and campaigns to have separate toilets installed in houses that employ black servants. She comes to be the driving force behind Skeeter’s decision to write the stories.
In The Help, we are witnesses to the relationships of mothers, daughters, friends, employer and employee, and the ineffable role of nanny. Stockett carefully sets up scenes in which to showcase these intimate relationships and then, often, takes it to another level and explores what happens when an individual asserts herself and stands up for what she believes in.
And this is the true success of the book. Minny takes a job working for a woman who is considered white trash and excluded from fundraising clubs. She tries to maintain an appropriate boundary, but experiences significant bonding moments with her employer. Aibileen, who has raised and said goodbye to numerous white children (as well as her own biological child), opens her heart once again in hopes of influencing Mae Mobley to love herself and treat all people with equality. We see the changing tides of friendship, and we are witness to the insecurities that women face and how they act on their issues.
Where this book stumbles is in the use of stereotypes. We have a sassy black woman and the gentle grandmother. And we have the two white women—one who is an empathizer to the cause and the other who is a passive aggressive, underhanded mean housewife with nothing better to do than create trouble. There is also the clichéd plot twist of blacks helping the repressed whites finally find their soul. To that end, some may take offense that a white woman (who grew up in the south with a black nanny) took the liberty to not only write this novel, but utilize regional dialect.
Still, the careful exposition on friendship, love, and taking a stand will thrill its intended audience. While the ideas and characters may not be exactly fresh, Stockett does a fine job of interweaving a plot that could otherwise just be one big mess.
Melody L. Heide is a writer and lover of all things chocolate currently residing in southern Minnesota.