STOCKETT, KATHRYN. The Help. New York: Berkley Books, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-425-23220-0. Pp. 534. $16.00.
The cover of Kathryn Stockett's first novel keeps reminding me that this is one of the most important books since To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes: The Help does discuss relations between the blacks and the whites. Yes: It was written by a white lady. Yes: It does make references to Mockingbird on numerous occasions. And yes: They did make a movie out of it. BUT: Let's not forget that the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird was contemporary with the Civil Rights movement, written when segregation and racial prejudice were the norm and not what we would simply call today, "racist". We all know that Mockingbird's contents were so inflammatory as to have been banned in certain states, including Mississippi, where The Help takes place. Mockingbird takes place in the 1930s and deals with a fictitious trial in which a black male defendant was accused of raping a white woman. The exonerating evidence is overwhelming, but to acquit him would be to admit the guilt of a white man, the victim's father. In the end, the jury find him guilty of the crime, but only after hours of deliberation. At the time, this was considered a small victory.
The Help, on the other hand, takes place entirely within the domestic realm of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Instead of a courtroom drama, this is a bathroom drama: most of what's at stake seems to be who gets to go to the bathroom where. Obviously bathroom segregation stands in for a much greater social issue, but Stockett doesn't really "go there". At one point I thought she would, when a black maid is sent to prison for four years for stealing a worthless bauble. The question of whether her twin sons would be able to go to college (the reason why she stole from "her white lady" in the first place) is never answered. Instead, back to the toilet we go.
Three women narrate the novel--there are almost no men to speak of here, which will greatly hurt Stockett's chance of reaching a male readership. Aibileen is the maternal black maid who has raised seventeen white children in her lifetime, oftentimes loving them more than their own mothers can. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is the short, fat, sassy maid who can't stop getting fired for talking back. She has six and a half children and a husband who beats her. Finally, there's Skeeter, a fairly prominent member of the young, white, upper class female community who was herself raised by a black maid. The only one of her social group to have finished college, Skeeter has greater aspirations than just getting married and raising white children. Do these three women seem familiar to anyone else? Other cast members include the awful white alpha-female and her entourage of yes-women, and a kindly, color-blind (figuratively, that is) Marilyn Monroe look-a-like. Stockett is an excellent writer of dialogue, and she even writes a Southern black woman's voice without making you too uncomfortable. But her characters aren't so much people as they are types.
The plot, although slow to get started, is intriguing and there are enough loose ends to give the reader a sense of urgency and suspense. What happened to Skeeter's childhood maid Constantine? What did Minny do to her former boss that was so awful? [Hint: John Waters could have written that bit.] But there are also details driving the plot that are too unrealistic, too obviously there only to keep things going. When Skeeter applies for a job at Harper & Row, a position for which she is grossly under-qualified, the editor actually writes to her a letter of encouragement. I've applied to plenty of jobs I wasn't qualified for. Where are all my mentors? Eventually a book idea (and possible book deal) comes from all this and Skeeter sets about stealthily interviewing blacks maids around town about what it's like to be a black maid around town. The result is a mix between a sociological study and a vehicle for revenge. In the end, as in Mockingbird, things are still the same, and yet somehow a little bit better.
Unlike Mockingbird, The Help, which deals with the evils of the now-defunct segregation laws, seems less to be an advocate for change than it does a pat on our white backs, as if to say "Look how bad it used to be. Isn't everything all better now?" It should be saying, "Yes, it used to be a lot worse, but how can we make it better?"