Sunday, May 15, 2011

Reading Update: The Help

In her afterword to The Help (which was book #17 of the year), Kathryn Stockett quotes Howell Raines:
"There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism."
That's basically what this book is about: relationships between white families, but mostly the women and children, and their black house help in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. The good, the bad, and the very ugly. Stockett says:
"Regarding the lines between black and white women, I am afraid I have told too much. I was taught not to talk about such uncomfortable things, that it was tacky, impolite, they might hear us....I am afraid I have told too little....What I am sure about is this: I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s, I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity."
I can relate so well to Stockett's angst here, and I admire her courage in writing about the cruel, complicated world of her childhood the way she has, almost to the same degree that I admire Nadine Gordimer for writing the book July's People. I relate as a privileged, spoiled (and yes, bleeding heart liberal) white woman writing about Haiti, and feeling always that I tell too much and too little. Stockett uses the analogy of her mother: she says that she can complain about her mother, but nobody else had better try. For me that's complicated even more by being a foreigner and not even being able to call Haiti my mother the way she calls Mississippi hers. I relate as well as a person with a lovely, lovely lady who works in my home and whom I love like a sister. (I know, it sounds as though I am protesting too much, but it is really true.)

But enough about me. Let me say something about the book.

Skeeter Phelan is a member in good standing of the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi. Like every other white person in town, she was raised by a black maid, and this woman, Constantine, was the person she loved most in the world. When Skeeter went to college, Constantine disappeared, and Skeeter can't get anyone to tell her exactly what happened. There are lots of other things about Jackson life that are starting to confuse and disturb her, too, and this discomfort and her need to find out about how to clean houses for her newspaper job, lead her to begin talking to the help in her friends' homes. The book is told in Skeeter's voice and also in the voices of Aibileen and Minny, two maids. As I am thinking about the characters in this book, I realize what a great job Stockett did of showing us the whole gamut of Jackson society. Most of the people are presented even-handedly (although Hilly Holbrook doesn't seem to me to have any redeeming qualities and it's hard for me to understand how she and Skeeter ever got to be friends, let alone best friends). We see families who love their maids and treat them well, or at least as well as they can figure out how to, given the horrible attitudes which prevail in the town. There are others who treat their help in ways that are painful to read about. Aibileen takes care of children, and like Constantine did with Skeeter, she tries to raise them right, to compensate for the neglect and mistreatment they get from their mothers, to communicate to them that they are lovable the way they are.

This was a thoroughly engrossing book, full of memorable characters. I recommend it.


Janet said...

I loved this one too.

Tricia said...

I listened to this on CD (actually, on my iPod) and was captivated!

Sheila Lynch said...

I am so glad you liked it....
I found myself laughing out loud and crying!
My heart was racing as she sat in the pantry talking on the phone all the time.