G.P. Putnam, 2009
The Help is a fun read and so well anchored in the south that it’s easy for a reader to happily gawk at a slice of history without feeling reminded of their own foibles in the treatment of others. The humor and pragmatism of the “colored” maids as they live lives not normally used as the plot of a book, is a glimpse into humanity that also makes it disappointing history wasn’t told more often through women’s voices.
Aibileen nurtures her white employer’s daughter, polishes the silver, and irons an ungodly number of pleats on the same day she serves a lunch she prepared for white women playing gin rummy. Stoically, she overhears plans of building a toilet for her in the garage. The decision to build is promoted by Hilly, the town social leader of white Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. That decade was a tumultuous time in the American South, tearing families and communities apart as they took sides in the boil of social change.
I often avoid contemporary books over 350 pages on the experience that most of them are not well edited, but Stockett has few slow or unnecessary passages to her story. Close to every paragraph is conversation, reflecting a current style that sometimes seems cold, sparse and can leave the reader to draw conclusions the writer doesn’t intend or want. I think Stockett gets that. On page 218 Aibileen and her friend, Minny, talk about the current political unrest taking place over public restrooms, the lunch counter at Woolworth’s, marches in Birmingham and voting rallies. A white reader could lazily believe that conversation “showed” that’s what civil rights meant to the women, though the book repeatedly shows the personal affronts and humiliations they suffer. But Minny follows up with the thought that “tells”. “What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing the silver.” Stockett deepens character, plot and earns my respect for her one-two descriptive punches.
What I didn’t like was change of the point of view during the climactic Benefit. It was a far weaker voice after the compelling Aibileen, Minny and their white liaison, Skeeter. But the book isn’t only about the South and a decade in time. I was reminded of the callous and cruel girl games I witnessed in grade school and have seen repeated time and again through adulthood. Men may be more likely to kill each other with guns, but many women are deadly with intrigue and words. In the south they use race as a stage. In my state of Utah, we use religion.