Books
9:03 am
Mon May 4, 2009

The Help: A Novel, by Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett received a BA in English and creative writing from UA, worked in magazines in NYC for nine years, and now lives in Atlanta. This is her first novel and it is a marvel, a great read, engrossing and fast-paced.

Kathryn Stockett received a BA in English and creative writing from UA, worked in magazines in NYC for nine years, and now lives in Atlanta. This is her first novel and it is a marvel, a great read, engrossing and fast-paced.

The Help was identified as a winner, prenatally, so to speak, by the literary industry's version of the sonogram. The advance praise from other authors and most importantly from independent bookstore owners was huge. About 35 stores praised it. The book was released on February 10, 2009 and was on the NYT best seller list in the last week in March, and it deserves to be.

Unlike much of the rest of the best-seller list, The Help is not about lawyers, vampires or lost notebooks or lost dogs, CIA operatives or murder, space aliens, Opus Dei, tough times in Arabia or historical queens of any kind. It is, and the pun is fully intended, a domestic drama.

The plot is fairly simple. Skeeter Phelan graduates from Ole Miss without having landed a husband and returns home to Jackson. She is a little different from her buddies. She was in a sorority and is now a Junior Leaguer but her heart isn't in it. She wants to write. Skeeter gets a job at the local paper writing the household chores column but she has never cleaned or fixed anything, so she enlists the help of her friend Elizabeth's maid Aibileen, and from this small beginning Skeeter begins to learn what the life of a black domestic is like in Jackson in 1962-3-4, and it's not pretty.
The black domestics are badly paid. That is a given. Their white "ladies" are usually rude and the insults are varied and deep. The women do not ever sit together at lunch for example, a small matter. Much more painful, the ladies discuss openly their fear that blacks are unclean, diseased, immoral, untrustworthy, and even lazy, although the help works like galley slaves, and the ladies rarely lift a finger. Beyond all this though, the black help is totally vulnerable. Any white woman can accuse a maid of theft, for example, and she may never find a job again. The worst of the lot is Hilly, who is running a citywide campaign to have all white people with help install toilets to be used only by the help.

Skeeter decides to write a book, telling, anonymously, the help's stories. Slowly she recruits volunteers, first Aibileen and then Minnie, and then a dozen. This book, The Help, is essentially the book Skeeter puts together.

There are many horrific stories of abuse and racism, of course, but Skeeter and the reader are happy to see that, once in a while, a kind, human loving relationship is established. Some women are closer to their help than they would want their friends to know. This is a novel of drama and suspense in that Skeeter would be ostracized entirely if her friends found out about the project and the maids would be fired or worse, possibly the victims of violence, since it is all around them. Medgar Evers is shot. JFK is assassinated. There is civil war at Ole Miss.

Stockett takes some chances here. A white author, writing in black voices, and in this case with some heavy dialect, is likely to receive some criticism. This has been true since Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. Southern whites will have to judge her depictions of Jackson's upper middle class and southern blacks will have to judge the black characters. The characterizations and language seem dead-on to me. Also of interest are the menfolk, or lack of them. Often a criticism of a male author's book will be that women are not central enough or not properly rendered. The men in this book are essentially ghosts, of little interest once trapped and wed. They are to work, bring home the paycheck, then go hunting or whatever it is they do, and stay out of the way. This novel is simply not about them, it's about the help and the mostly dreadful women they work for.

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