By Kathryn Stockett
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009
Reviewed by Julia Oliver
The ingenuous title of this new bestseller clarifies it on the jacket cover as “a novel,” but these 400-plus pages are as convincing as fine journalism. It’s the summer of 1962, in Jackson, Mississippi, the author’s hometown. In The Help, Stockett, who has a degree in creative writing from the University of Alabama, has reproduced perfectly pitched speech patterns and description of a time and place that belonged to her mother’s generation.
The pivotal character, Skeeter, has just graduated from Ole Miss and come home to live on the parental plantation while she waits to be spoken for. Her smug Junior-Leaguer friends are settled into marriage and motherhood, with black maids to clean their houses, care for their children, and cook their food. Skeeter misses Constantine, the maid who was a nurturing fixture of her childhood, but has disappeared—no one seems to know where she went.
The first narrator, Aibileen, describes her role as “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.” On bridge club day, she arranges “the-this and the-that” for Miss Leefolt’s lady friends. Aibileen and her friend, Minny, who is too outspoken and feisty for her own good, join forces with Miss Skeeter to change some things in this stagnant environment that seethes with racial tension.
There are unresolved issues as the story accelerates and ends somewhat abruptly, but that progression makes it more authentic. Amidst the suspense and painful truths are some memorable observations: “A portrait of a Confederate general hangs eight feet tall. It is as prominent as if he were a grandfather and not a third cousin removed.” Abileen refers to the southern staple of grits as “a vehicle. For whatever it is you rather be eating.” She refers to a heroic icon as “Martian Luther King,” and tells the white child she’s looking after that people were mean to him because he was green. When Skeeter, whose real name is Eugenia, learns of her mother’s terminal illness, the latter assures her, “Don’t think you can just let yourself go after I’m gone. I am calling Fannie Mae’s the minute I can walk to the kitchen and make your hair appointments through 1975.”
In an afterword chapter, Stockett explains: “I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person.... There is one line in The Help that I truly prize: ‘Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.’” May 2009
Novelist Julia Oliver will be interviewed by Dr. Philip Beidler at the Alabama Writers Symposium on May 1, 2009.