Although Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, came out nearly a year ago, it remains to date on the New York Times Top 10 Bestselling Fiction list… Forty weeks of its shelf life in fact, it has spent jostling with other titles on the list, still sitting comfortably at No. 4 as of January 11th.
In this list-watching way, I waited patiently, patiently for my copy to move to number 1 on the library holds list. When I finally had the massive 444-page, hard bound copy in my hands, I grabbed a blanket, made cup after cup of tea and spent nearly two days on the couch plowing through Ms. Stockett’s tale of black domestic servants in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, and the white privileged woman who wants to write about them.
The primary white character, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, graduates from Ole Miss without her MRS degree, heartily disappointing her mother (as we hear over and over and over…) who continually blames her lack of a man on her white-blonde frizzy, unmanageable hair and lanky frame. But all Skeeter wants out of life is to be a writer and to move to New York (or at least out of her parents’ house).
Skeeter’s two life-long friends, Elizabeth Leefolt and Hilly Holbrook, are married, be-childrened and mostly concerned with their power in the Junior League, their ability to get into the Country Club to swim through the hot, hot summer afternoons in Jackson, and their monthly bridge games.
“Ms. Hilly” is particularly vicious, evinced most overtly through her pushing Skeeter throughout the novel to include in the Junior League newsletter a call for an odious “Home Help Sanitation Initiative”—which bluntly encourages all white homeowners to install separate toilets for their black help, so as to keep “dangerous Negro diseases” safely quarantined.
And that brings us to the black characters, primarily Aibileen, Ms. Leefolt’s maid, and Minny, Aibileen’s younger, best friend who we are told is the best cook in the city but can’t keep a job because she can’t keep her mouth shut and play the part of the doting, non-threatening black—the only acceptable model available at the time. Aibileen is gentle, sweet, smart and worn down. She has raised 17 white children, almost all of them up to the age that they pick up the racism of their parents and their society and turn on her; at which point, her heart breaks a little more and she moves on to the next family. Currently she is raising Ms. Leefolt’s little girl, Mae Mobley, and while their relationship is touching and mutually loving, Ms. Leefolt’s inability to raise, or even relate to, her own child is disturbing and almost unbelievable.
In this brief excerpt Aibileen recalls the first time she arrived at the Leefolt household when Mae Mobley was still an infant (also an introduction to the voice Stockett uses to narrate for her black characters):
It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation.”
In short order the skeleton of the plot: Skeeter pitches a story she doesn’t truly have in the docket yet to a publisher in New York. Sensing guarded interest in the idea, she sets out to actually secure the material for the piece, attempting to recruit black maids who will tell her their intimate stories about working for Jackson’s white families.
The idea is hatched from a laughable gig she’s landed, writing columns on household cleaning tips for the local newspaper she’s landed herself, a topic she knows nothing about and has been going to Aibileen for all her answers. It is through this relationship that Skeeter and Aibileen develop, and various other personal injustices and national tragedies (Stockett uses Medgar Evans’s shooting to galvanize great action) that the two manage, against great odds and in the face of certain danger, to recruit about a dozen women to share their stories anonymously.
The book manages to tie together the various story lines with timing and precision, making for an ending that’s glossily happy and benign considering the momentum of eminent danger and despair that keeps readers catapulting through the final 150 pages. And this is perhaps the greatest disappointment of the book for me, where the bones of the story could promise nuance, intricacy, and depth of character, the actual product seems too timid to take these chances. The villainous, prejudiced whites are easy to despise and the abused, belittled, hardworking black women are deeply spiritual, and humble (except for Minny sometimes I suppose), and unquestionably brave and selfless.
While we look back on this period in American history today with shame and disappointment in the ignorance and intolerance of a segregated society, history is very rarely devoid of shades of grey. Societal ideals were ingrained in people, Southern racism was often more covert than one might believe—so many unspoken, yet unbreakable, rules. The gentry did not frequently sit around on the porch or gather at their fancy, over-laid dinner tables and loudly disabuse the next generation of their addled notions of integration, while telling the “help” to their face what diseases they were afraid they carried.
Though certainly the threat of violence at the hands of whites was very real, and the complete lack of recourse to justice or fairness in a white-run world is palpable as these women take great risk upon themselves to put their “truth” into the world. The courage of the characters is moving, and I am a softie for well-penned lines about striving for justice in impossible situations, which Stockett sprinkles throughout with aplomb
A novel that swirls around women, and the factors the divide them—race, class, marriage, ethics and ideology— there is a great deal that makes this book a recommendable tome. Yet, in all honesty, if I were to ask you to read a book along these lines I would turn to Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound of 2008.
Dark, tragic, twisting, and complex, Mudbound is set 15 years prior to The Help, at the end of WWII. Also set in Mississippi, but on rural farms that are completely isolated when the rains wash out the dirt roads, Jordan weaves a complicated tale involving relationships of men and women (also writing as several black characters) who are multi-dimensional and by turns despicable and achingly admirable.
Jordan does not shy away from the furious violence and merciless hatred that marked the darker hours of the Jim-Crow-era rural South. She uses her story to actually analyze historical themes such as the painful return of black WWII veterans to a country that did not value their service—nor their existence particularly—as well as the exhausting duties of a wife and mother in a environment void of “modern comforts”, to the pseudo-slavery of sharecropping; Jordan does a true service to history in this way, rather than using Bob Dylan songs, the advent of the Pill and unprecedented anti-smoking warnings to simply mark time as Stockett does. Perhaps the most striking difference is that Jordan chooses to examine the tension between poor whites and poor blacks, while Stockett instead stays in a world of the rich and elite and their ignorant interactions with the color-line.
Both books have their relative merits, but it was my rewarding memories of Jordan’s Mudbound that propelled me through The Help and it perhaps those same memories that led to my feelings of deflation at the end.