If you were to ask me what I liked about this book, my first response would be something like: The heroine has the best name ever. Skeeter Phelan? It’s just godawful. And hence insanely great.
She’s an ugly duckling with a rich family and big dreams, which endeared her to me even more. While those around her immediately settle into their roles in southern society life, dropping out to get married and organising fundraisers for poor African children while refusing to share their bathrooms with their African-American maids, Skeeter has the balls to buck the trend and look beyond the uniforms, seeing “the help” as what they are. Real people.
Getting friendly with the help, however, doesn’t endear her to her snotty bridge club friends. And what would they do if they knew she – gasp – wanted to write a book detailing the experiences of local maids at the hands of their white mistresses? Fraternising with blacks can only lead to serious doo-doo in the sixties. Cue tiptoeing around as Skeeter leads a double life, telling her mother she’s going to church every night when she’s actually holed up in the home of her best friend’s maid, frantically transcribing the life stories of various local housekeepers (and even hiding it from her rich boyfriend. After all, you can’t trust anyone; apparently being an equal-rights sympathiser is akin to being a communist).
Inevitably, a project like this leads to learning things about your friends and neighbours you didn’t want to know (and begs the question of why Skeeter is friends with them in the first place). And what happened to her childhood housekeeper, the servant Constantine who practically raised her?
Aibileen and Minny, the two maids who make up the other two narrators in The Help, also make for gripping reading. Aibileen is a far better mother to toddler Mae Mobley than her cold, disaffected biological one – and while white children inevitably grow up to turn against the help, she does her best to instil a sense of decency and love in the child. Meanwhile, sharp-tongued, brassy Minny (who is, disappointingly, married to an alcoholic abuser) forms a surprising bond with her new mistress, the endearing white-trash Celia Foote who’s out of her depth in upper-class Jackson, Mississippi.
Stockett is brave, perhaps, attempting to write in a black voice. I’d like to think she does so elegantly and respectfully. Around the edge of the main story, she sketches out the horrendous things humans inflict upon each other in the name of hate – a man beaten and blinded for using a public toilet not specifically marked for blacks. Within that inner circle, she details both the cruelty of cold households, and the genuine affection that goes on behind closed doors in others.
My sole gripe is with an ill mother storyline that seemed to go nowhere. Otherwise, Stockett’s unfussy style and strong characterisation through speech and straightforward narrative gets the thumbs up from me.