Three years after it was published and became an international bestseller, I’m jumping on the The Help bandwagon. I’ll admit that I expected to like the book nowhere near as much as I did; in fact, I picked it up almost grudgingly, as with the Twilight books, believing I needed to rectify a cultural deficiency of some sort that I could talk about (because I read my Entertainment Weekly and know my shit) and even form shallow opinions on but not truly understand. (A few more examples of these cultural blind spots: I’ve never seen The Godfather all the way through. I’ve neither read any of the Harry Potter books nor seen the movies. And I still haven’t read War and Peace.) I saw the film adaptation of The Help last August and thought it was fine but not spectacular, though the performances were all Oscar-worthy. The book was not only marginally better than the movie, it was gripping in a way the film version was not—the latter sort of plodded along while the book propelled me. I stayed up until 4 AM on a weeknight to finish it, which I haven’t done since Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that’s got to mean something.
For those who don’t know the details like they’re old hat, The Help is by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman who (like one of her protagonists, Skeeter Phelan) grew up in Mississippi and moved to New York City in her early twenties to become a writer. In her “note to reader” at the end of the book, Stockett throws in a couple of anecdotes about how, when she first moved to NYC, people would ask where she was from, she’d say “Mississippi,” and snarky comments of the “Oh, I’m so sorry” variety would almost invariably follow. My sheepishness—because of course that would have been my own knee-jerk reaction, though I probably would have refrained from voicing it—gave way to amusement as I realized the way she felt about her home state is exactly how I’ve felt as an American living in Paris and Berlin. “Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person who raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too.”
Anyway, Stockett’s debut novel, published in 2009, is set during the last gasp of Jim Crow (1963 and 1964) in Jackson, Mississippi. The story unfolds via three first-person POVs: There’s Skeeter, a 23-year-old aspiring writer who comes home to Jackson after graduating from Ole Miss and finds her childhood maid (and surrogate mother), Constantine, has mysteriously disappeared; Aibileen, a black maid to Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth who’s still grieving over the loss of her teenage son; and Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, whose smart-aleck-y streak, we’re told, consistently gets her into trouble. Skeeter, who becomes more and more willing to question the racism of both Mississippi law and the de facto social structure of Jackson, gets a job at the local Jackson Journal writing a housekeeping advice column and goes to Aibileen for help on stuff like how to advise people to remove rings from shirt collars. The two women’s relationship grows from there, and Skeeter soon enlists Aibileen in a project she’s sure will make a difference in Jackson: Skeeter will interview twelve maids—including Aibileen—about their experiences working in white households and compile the stories into a book, which she’ll send to a New York publishing house for consideration.
Stockett is white, and she writes Aibileen’s and Minny’s sections in the African-American Southern patois, which got people like Mark Twain and William Styron into trouble. But my PC barometer didn’t go off once, and I found Stockett’s voice to be genuine, poignant and not at all gimmicky, which is no small achievement. Even the parts of the movie version I thought superfluous (the subplot about Minny going to work for a wrong-side-of-the-tracks-y woman who’s been shunned from the bridge games and Junior League meetings that constitute a social life in Jackson) somehow worked in print, underscoring not just the corrosive effects of snobbery but also the ability of Sixties-era black women and white women to develop real (if inherently unequal) friendships. I also think the book did a much better job of illustrating Skeeter’s growing disenchantment with her former best friends, whom she had both outgrown and come to see for the small-minded people they were. Comeuppance is never truly meted out to those who deserve it, but the end of the book nevertheless feels like a triumph. I even cried.
The book has sold more than 5 million copies and has been published in 35 countries, and I get it; I really do. Bottom line, The Help is a very good story. As for its larger subject matter, it’s always tough for a white person to offer an opinion on the civil-rights struggle, even if it is one of deep-rooted embarrassment and pain. I will admit to reading books like this and thinking of the man who currently occupies the White House and marveling at how far we’ve come. (Along these same lines, I distinctly remember an anecdote in Tom Brokaw’s excellent Boom! Voices of the Sixties, where a black man in Georgia watches a black cop pull a white man over for speeding and his eyes fill with tears as he thinks, If only Martin could see this.) And then something else happens, like the murder of Trayvon Martin, that wipes that progressive idealism straight out. Race still defines American life; we seem to simply refight the battles of the Sixties over and over again. Maybe that’s why The Help still resonates—because a white reader thinks, sure, that’s the way things were, and maybe the ending isn’t quite the fuck-you to the racists we might have hoped for, but thank God things have changed. Right before you close the book and it occurs to you that, nearly fifty years later, the war isn’t even close to being won.
Also see: The New Republic‘s John McWhorter on why The Help (the movie) isn’t racist, but its critics probably are.