I am fascinated by the South. I’m itching to have enough money and time to go on a southern tour of the United States – my main interest lying in South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi. I don’t really know where this obsession comes from or when it started, but I am so mesmerized by the architecture, the heat and the history of the southern states.
This is why I love reading books that take place in the South – they transport me there. In particular, I love books about the Civil Right movement and the South (again who knows why). So, The Help by Kathryn Stockett was a natural choice for me to bring on vacation.
I loved the book, and not just because it’s right up my ally, but because it’s a great story. I haven’t enjoyed a book that much since I read the Twilight series (no shame). The story is told from the point of view of three different women: Aibleen and Minny are both black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, and Skeeter is a 23-year-old white woman who, unlike every other upper-class woman her age, finished college instead of getting married. Skeeter – clearly modeled after the author herself – wants to be a writer and when a big-name publisher in New York City advises her to write about something that bothers her, she gets the dangerous idea to interview black maids about what it’s like to work for white families. And it all happens against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, which was slow in reaching the deep South.
While I loved every minute of the book, the last hundred pages – which I read straight through on the plane ride home – are definitely the most exciting. When I didn’t feel like crying, I was on the edge of my seat so nervous for the characters. And like People magazine is quoted as saying on the back of the book, I really did almost cheer out loud.
Stockett, who is white, makes a gutsy move by writing in the voice of a southern black woman for Aibeleen and Minny’s chapters, but it works and you really get engulfed in their personalities. Mainly, it’s a book about the complex relationship between white southerners and their black help – a subject I obviously know nothing about. Back then, affluent white children were basically raised by black women. The white women they worked for also leaned on these maids for support and friendship, yet there was always a psychological line between them – the “understanding” that white people are better. Because of this, it was so easy for these white housewives to turn around and be cruel to their maids and fire to them for the most minor offenses.
But it’s also very much a book about women in general and the silent strength that all women have – whether black or white. Aibleen goes on raising other women’s children everyday carrying the sadness of her own son’s death. Minny jeopardizes her livelihood everyday by back-talking to white women and pushing the boundaries of their authority, yet she goes home to an abusive husband at night. Mrs. Phelan, Skeeter’s mother, battles illness in secret for months all the while keeping her family in tact the only way she knows how to (although it’s misguided and seems cruel at times). And Skeeter is not just the heroin of the novel because she stands up for the maids, but also because she stands up for herself. She makes her life what she wants it to be no matter what her mother, her friends or the man she’s in love with say. We also get to know Skeeter’s friends – the women the maids work for. Although they are the “villains” of the book for the way they treat anyone who they feel is beneath them, they too show strength in that they work endlessly to uphold their images and their husbands’ images in the community. As petty and deluded as this is, to them, it is the measure of their worth and they will not let anyone ruin it.
Another less prominent dichotomy that Stockett explores in the book is the one between the South and the North. I was particularly sensitive in picking up on this not just because I am the “other” as far as this book is concerned, but because I happened to be in Florida when I was reading it. We really do have inherent prejudices toward each other – my dad actually scared a guy from Kentucky away at a bar just by saying he was from New York. The barely-developed relationship between Skeeter and Elaine Stein, the New York publicist, performs the task of illustrating how the South was a different world from the rest of the country. Stein is slightly condescending toward Skeeter because Skeeter is so naive. Although she tries to be (and for the most part is) different from the rest of Jackson, Skeeter cannot help but be a product of a society so deeply and stubbornly rooted in tradition and so reluctant to embrace progress.
“Ever colored person in Jackson gets in front a whatever tee-vee set they can find, watches Martin Luther King stand in our nation’s capital and tell us he’s got a dream…I can’t believe so many people is there – two hundred fifty thousand. And the ringer is, sixty thousand a them is white. ‘Mississippi and the world is two very different places,’ the Deacon say and we all nod cause ain’t it the truth” (347).
One quote that really stuck with me though, is not in the novel but in the short essay at the end of the book about Stockett’s personal experience being a Southerner in New York City. She says, “Once at a roof party, a drunk man from a rich white Metro North-train type of town asked me where I was from and I told him Mississippi. He sneered and said, ‘I am so sorry.'”
This made me laugh and it stayed with me mostly because I’m from those “Metro North-train type” towns. But I think it just shows that even Stockett, who is enlightened enough to step out of herself and write this type of book about the place she grew up in, still feels the “otherness” between herself and us yanks.
Now I can’t wait for the movie to come out on August 10!