Like Sue Monk Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees before it, The Help has made its author’s literary debut memorable. It portrays the experience of women, a staple subject of the book clubs that have championed it. It’s set in civil rights-era Mississippi, a time and place writers haven’t exhausted yet and readers will likely never tire of. And it’s the story of two maids and a young Southern belle who collaborate to tell the truth – the stuff of feel-good summer movies. There’s no doubt that the movie adaptation, which stars Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis, has boosted sales and admiration of the novel, which was published in 2009.
The story is told in turns by three characters, with each set of chapters bearing the name of whichever is narrating. The opening chapters belong to Aibileen, who works at the Leefolt house, cooking and cleaning, and caring for 3-year-old Mae Mobley. True to her warm, nurturing character, Aibileen speaks in a colloquial tone that invited me in. Stockett has been criticized for her choice of a Twain-esque vernacular in rendering the maids’ voices; however, I can see it was necessary due to the multiple narrative perspectives. What I do wish she had done is deleted the “Miss” honorific from the white narrator’s name – there’s no need for Skeeter’s status to be elevated above that of Aibileen or Minny outside the world of the novel.
The buzz surrounding the movie version includes the inevitable objection over the white author’s assumption of black voices. Stockett addresses this in the essay included in the book: she wasn’t presuming to speak for black women but trying to understand their experience. In this way, it’s Skeeter who is speaking for the author. As is also made clear by the essay, Skeeter represents the real Mae Mobleys of the South who, like Stockett, were raised partly by the black domestic workers in their families’ employ. That is, Skeeter represents those who didn’t go on to absorb racial prejudice from their white community or inherit it like a family heirloom.
However, I skimmed whole chapters of Skeeter’s narrative just to stay on the stories of Aibileen and Minny. My quibble about the book is simpler: Skeeter’s story is not interesting. As the aspiring journalist who wants to help, and succeeds in helping, “the help” to raise public awareness of social injustice, Skeeter tells her side of the story earnestly. This makes for a mundane plot strand. It’s the sharp subtext of Aibileen’s mild-mannered interactions at work and the comic undertone of Minny’s that enliven their narratives. Take a scene from Minny’s chapters: Agreeing to work in secret because newlywed Miss Celia wants her husband to believe she can cook, Minny panics one afternoon when she sees Mister Johnny coming up the driveway. She hides in the bathroom. “After a minute, I see myself in the mirror over the sink,” she narrates. “Crouched like a fool on top of a white lady’s toilet. Look at me. Look what it’s come to for Minny Jackson to make a damn living.” It’s a scene full of endearing humor and pathos.
The bathroom segregation practiced in discriminatory white households is what convinces Aibileen to let Skeeter interview her. The writer discovers that the maid already writes her own story in a journal, and she reads in her spare time to inform her writing: Dickinson, Twain, W. E. B. Du Bois, Freud. Aibileen is clearly intelligent but has no prospects beyond domestic service; her only audience is the little girl she cares for who listens to her allegories about racial harmony and equality, and to her stories of the green-skinned man from outer space whose name is Martian Luther King. Certainly Stockett has the ability to create compelling characters, but curiously, the writer who represents her in her story is not one of them. Even the viewpoint of Celia, Minny’s troubled employer, might have been more engaging, as she, too, is a victim of bigoted Hilly Holroyd and her league of society ladies. Being a socialite herself, albeit a dissenting one, Skeeter wages tame battles that only get in the way of the central conflicts.
If nothing else, The Help joins such novels as Chris Cleave’s Little Bee and Andrea Levy’s Small Island in encouraging us to appreciate the women who even today remain socially invisible. According to the International Labour Organization, at least 53 million people, mostly young women, are employed in domestic service worldwide. That’s the conservative estimate; the actual number could be as much as 100 million. The ILO adopted a landmark agreement just last June that specifies the same labor rights for domestic workers as exists in other occupations, such as weekly days off and protection from abuse. Now, that certainly is feel-good news.