The Help is a debut novel written by Kathryn Stockett, a former Jackson resident who wrote it after graduating from college, while working for a magazine publishing and marketing house in New York. Stockett worked there for nine years.
This novel weaves an extraordinary tale around the ‘coloured situation’ in Jackson, Mississippi, America during the 1960s; when black maids were hired to raise white children. Stockett takes you on an emotional roller-coaster ride of the depressed feelings, sense of helplessness and utter cold neglect that these black maids faced while working for their Christian white employers. Stockett helps the reader understand what hardships the Help actually had to go through during those days of such cruel social discrimination through the eyes of two very brave women employed in those times. This was a time when they went as low as to start an ‘initiative’ for separate bathrooms for the black maids. The three points of view, one white and two black, transport us to a period when Patsy Cline was famous and Mr. King was making waves with his voice raised against such atrocities. However the book also covers the good among the bad – when some of these white employers also displayed deep compassion and humility, enough to thank these brave women who stressed over the simple fact that they may not have separated all the pleats on the boss’s dress!
The plot of this book covers a passionate social interest– the history of discrimination against colored skin, and how the blacks had to struggle to get their freedom and equal status in society. Stockett’s account is a first person narrative by a white child raised by a black maid and two other black protagonists who were employed in the same area as maids. Stockett muses, “How could a white write in the voice of a black woman? A white who would otherwise fail to describe a relationship that intense and influential, grossly stereotyped in American history and literature,”
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important,” With these words Aibleen, one of the many suffering maids, made me re-read this book. These sentences may hold no significance to anyone, but for Stockett I think, it summed up her whole story.
There’s Aibleen with the ‘powder prayers’, who is still mourning her young son’s tragic death, while trying to distract herself with her seventeenth white charge baby, Mae Mobley. She is the ‘voice of a black woman.’In spite of her sorrow, Aibleen’s caring and loyal nature towards Mae and Lil’ Man Ross, confused four and one year olds respectively, of Elizabeth Leefolt (the employer) is plainly visible. I was sucked into the painful vortex of emotion between the maid, children and the mother.
There’s the ‘sass-mouthing’ Minny who had to deal with a violent, alcoholic husband and five children of her own. Yet she puts on an extremely brave and strong front towards life. Minny is one of those people who Stockett portrays as a ‘no-nonsense’ character, and this could clearly be seen with her exasperation with her strangely kind white employer Celia who opted to sit with her in the same table for lunch.
Lastly there’s Eugenia Phelan or Miss Skeeter, as people called her. She’s the person who is the most important of the three protagonists because on a quest to find her own maid’s sudden disappearance, she chances upon this new idea leading to the direction for writing The Help. Skeeter, is the literary strength behind this story and her strong compassion to make a change is clear.
The dark side is traced in the characters of Hilly Holbrook, Elizabeth Leefolt and many others like them who thought that they were doing their maids a favour by hiring them. On the good side there’s Celia Foote, Eugenia Phelan, Lou Anne and to some extent Skeeter’s mother Charlotte. These were women who always acted kindly with their Help. Thus tracing the good and bad attitudes of women in the same society, the author wants us to realise that as women we are the only ones to bring about good or bad for womankind!
This plot is contemporary to the civil rights movement happening in America; when blacks were being shot at indiscriminately and the black people were vulnerable to any attack on them. Thus scared, the maids lived in constant fear since they all travelled a distance from a black neighbourhood to a white one for work – and anyone could shoot them down at any moment. However the protagonists Aibleen, Minny and the other maids still risk it, courageously crossing boundaries and helping Skeeter write Help because they realised that if they didn’t speak up now, they wouldn’t speak up ever!
While reading this account, one is met with a detailed insight into human feelings and senses of respect. A very sound look at how respect for womankind and the concept of feminism like this can unite all women against atrocities in society. Stockett, through the voice of Eugenia, brings these thoughts and beliefs out very clearly and through a lot of emotional intent. Eugenia is portrayed as the one who didn’t care what colour the women in uniform were because Aibleen and Hilly were the same in her eyes.
The Help is thus a confidence booster for a woman’s soul – not only then, but also now. It makes you believe in yourself no matter what – in the words of Aibleen as she taught little Mae Mobley one needs to remember, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”! I may have repeated this, but I put it here again so that you can be compelled to get up right now and get your hands on a copy ofThe Help, because I would do that if I were you!