The early 1960s. The civil rights movement is well underway, with marches, boycotts and sit-ins. The resistance to change is no stronger than in Jackson Mississippi, where a black man can be beaten to within inches of his life for mistakenly using the white restroom. It is here that we meet the five main characters of the novel, three young white women who live on the privileged side of the bridge, and two negroes who during the day work as servants on the white side of the bridge, but at night return to their homes on the black side.
Miss Eugenia (Skeeter) Phelan lives on her parents’ cotton plantation and wants to be a writer, but her mother is eager for her to find a husband. Skeeter talks with respect to the servants, mainly because her family had a servant, Constantine, who raised her and who she loved. But Constantine left without any explanation while Skeeter was in her last months in College, and no one will tell her why or where to find her. Her best friends are: Miss Hilly – Head of the Ladies’ League and from a well-to-do southern family. Her husband is running for state office, and she wants nothing to stand in his way, including any friends that might harbour secret integrationist views. Her pet project is to ensure that all white households build separate outside lavatories for their servants to use, so that ‘black diseases’ are not passed on to her community. Miss Elizabeth Leefolt – a 23 year old mother who lives with her husband and child, whom she mostly ignores, in a small house. They are obviously poor, but Miss Leefolt tries to keep up with her wealthy friend Hilly, and takes on some of her attitudes, including the building of a lavatory in her garage for the servant.
Aibileen Clark is a 53 year old black servant, whose 24 year old son died in an accident at work a few years earlier, planting a bitter seed in her. But she is used to keeping quiet about the indignities she suffers so as to just get on with her life, until…
Minny Jackson is 36 and Aibileen’s best friend, who is married to a man who beats her and has five young children. At the start of the story she is working for Miss Walters, Miss Hilly’s mother, but Minny doesn’t suffer fools, and has an incendiary, back-talking mouth on her, which leads to Miss Hilly dismissing her and putting the word out that Minny is a thief. This prevents Minny getting any work except for her secret job with Miss Celia Rae Foote, a simple, unsophisticated country gal, who married well above her station as far as Miss Hilly is concerned, especially as it was to her ex, Johnny Foote.
The main plot centres around Skeeter’s desire to be a writer. A New York agent likes her writing, but wants a more interesting story. The story that Skeeter latches onto is how the servants feel about their lives working for the white families of Jackson. This is incendiary stuff in a community resisting civil rights changes, and not only does it endanger Skeeter’s friendships with Miss Hilly and Miss Leefolt, but at the very least it puts at risk the livelihoods, and potentially the lives, of the servants she interviews.
But this isn’t all serious highbrow fiction. I found many moments when I laughed out loud, particularly the scene when Skeeter’s family have dinner with her new boyfriend Stuart’s family, her mother eager to impress with pretentious chatter to snare a son-in-law.
The book is written in the first person from the point of view of several of the characters, and the voices are all well realised.
One of the insights provided by the writer was the fact that whilst the physical violence of this period may have been carried out by the men, how much the women could be involved in instigating it, especially if they felt they had been crossed. Hence Aibileen’s thought as she contemplates the harm that can come to the family of those who participate in the interviews if they are found out: It’ll be a knock on the door, late at night. It won’t be the white lady at the door. She don’t do that kind a thing herself. But while the nightmare’s happening, the burning or the cutting or the beating, you realize something you known all your life: the white lady don’t ever forget….
Stockett’s desire to entertain the reader sometimes overrides what a real character would do, such as when Skeeter pays Pascagoula’s two brothers to do something that humiliates Hilly. Knowing the danger they would be in if caught, I cannot believe the real Skeeter would have done this.
A couple of instances like the above aside, this was a great read, with interesting subplots about Skeeter’s attempts to find a husband, her wanting to find out why the servant she adored, Constantine, left, the plight of Miss Celia Foote. But what will keep you reading is because you just so know that Miss Skeeter and the servants are going to be caught in their clandestine meetings – but the how and the what’s going to happen to them is the mystery…
The Help by Kathryn Stockett can be purchased at Amazon