Kathryn Stockett’s debut 2009 novel, The Help, was well received at the time and went on to win several notable literary awards. It has since been adapted for the screen, bringing the source material into further focus. During these times of social segregation, it seems more fitting than ever to review the message it tries to send.
Set in 1960s Mississippi, it closely follows the lives of three very different women. The opening section begins with Aibileen Clark. She is maid and cleaner for the Leefolt family, along with caring for their young daughter, Mae Mobley.
Aibileen’s calm, measured voice is a perfect way to introduce the reader to the town of Jackson. We see the love she has for the toddler. This despite previous experience showing her that when the babies grow up, a treasured bond is often cut forever.
Through her eyes we meet the women of the community. They have their own agendas and have no trouble ensuring the clear boundaries between blacks and whites are maintained. The early saga, revolving around Leefolt’s desire to have an outside toilet installed for Aibileen, is how a revulsion regarding archaic attitudes begins to simmer away with the reader.
Throughout, Aibileen remains dignified. She can ignore how the community ostracises, instigated most of the time by the ringleader of the white women, Hilly Holbrook.
Hilly is a readymade villain, almost a little too pantomime at times. She also acts as a link between the two worlds and lifestyles. The second of the protagonists we follow is Eugenia Phelan, or Skeeter as she is nicknamed for the majority of the scenes.
Skeeter is different from the other women in the clique. She misses her own maid that raised her, Constantine. Her unexpected disappearance which occurred months before Skeeter returned from university, drives her forward for answers. At first she views the common opinions surrounding the help with nothing more than indifference. She doesn’t discriminate out of her own nature.
Over time, when pressed and confronted with the separation between blacks and whites, she educates herself on the appalling laws and strives to make a difference. It isn’t an Oskar Schindler journey of realisation. Skeeter always treated people equally, but she started to see how deep the problem was.
Her and Aibileen first communicate in secret to help Skeeter complete a weekly newspaper column about housekeeping tips. Skeeter’s writing ambition, and the advice from a New York editor, make her look for a real story. And she realises the problem in Mississippi is a tale needing to be told.
The final voice to tell the story is Minny. For every piece of Aibileen’s calm, there is a bit of Minny’s passion. A woman whose mouth has gotten her into trouble more times than she cares to remember. Her anger and distrust is well justified and the fire in her belly doesn’t make her any less likable.
Her journey is forming a slow bond with Celia, a housewife who is seen to be too trashy for the usual social scene. This isn’t a natural fit to begin with but Minny has burnt her employment bridges to such a degree she has to persevere.
Of all the members of white society we meet in the story, Celia is the most naïve to the plight of the minorities. She truly can’t understand why Minny has walls surrounding their relationship and doesn’t see her employer as a potential friend.
Minny has a great comedic role to play in parts but her tale reveals a painful, difficult existence. She also offers herself up as a potential sacrifice to keep the group safe.
Which brings us to the main drive of the novel. When Hilly ensures her maid, Yule May, goes to prison for theft, the fellow maids in the town decide to help Aibileen and Skeeter produce a book detailing their experiences. During transformation and revelation, Aibileen is the cement that keeps everything together.
Stockett should be applauded for creating three strong voices to drive the story. Such is her talent, that at the end of each transition you wish you could stay with the woman you’re with, only to beg a few more chapters with the new voice in the cycle.
Switching to and fro is never jarring, sometimes it’s entirely necessary. The lives of these ordinary people are punctuated with historical moments in the civil rights campaign and the actions of JFK. They give a sense of the times and the social disharmony.
The only criticism is they don’t pound the problem home with enough force. There is never – despite hearing of horror stories – a real sense of fear. That isn’t to say they don’t suffer (you will shed a tear reading this book) but the plight of the people isn’t quite given the justice it deserves.
However, any shortfalls are made up with the execution of the main narrative and its moral points. There is no need to divide and separate. All people are equal. A baby is born without prejudice and loves those that are kindest, it sees no colour.
Hatred is taught and should never be allowed to overrule love.