Probably by now you've heard of Kathryn Stockett's widely acclaimed first novel, The Help. A friend loaned it to me, and I started reading it somewhat skeptically, as I usually don't like "best-seller" chick lit. But this book surprised me: it was well-written and thoughtful, and it has a riveting plot that keeps the reader reading deep into the night.
There are already over a thousand reviews of this book on Amazon, and I haven't read very many of them, so I may be repeating what other people have said, but here goes. The story is told in the first person voices of three characters: Skeeter, the young white woman who co-writes a book about the lives of black maids in Jackson, MS, in the mid-1960s; Aibileen, a maid in Jackson who writes several of the most important chapters in the book; and Minny, another maid whose explosive narrative of her own experiences being a maid drives the plot of the book. In the background are the terrible events of the early years of the Civil Rights movement: bombings, shootings, assassination, and general terror, mixed with wild hope.
I was raised in the South, and my mother had a maid. She was a constant quiet presence in my life from the time I was four, until I left for college. She left after my sister graduated from college and got married, so that means she worked for my family from about 1959 to 1999, about forty years. She was a very young woman, around eighteen years of age, when she first started coming a few days a week to our apartment at the VA hospital, and she was a little older than I am now when she finally left.
I remember wondering a lot what her life was like when she wasn't at our house. I never saw her house, or met anybody in her family. Sometimes I heard her husband's voice on the phone. During the 1960s, I remember knowing on some level that there was a lot of tension between black and white people (I was 14 in 1968), and I wished I could know what she thought, but as Kathryn Stockett says in the epilogue to her book, it just didn't seem possible to ask. Ms. Stockett wrote her book after spending years imagining how her beloved Demetrie would have answered that question.
This book may be as good an answer as white women ever get to the question: what do the black women that work for our families think about us? What are their lives like when they're not with us? Some of the answer, of course, is not flattering to white folks and is uncomfortable to read about. But Stockett also recognizes the closeness that sometimes develops between black and white women who spend hours together, looking after children together, and sharing the ups and downs of life over many decades; some of these relationships do last for forty years or more. The closeness and affection and genuine caring are there, but the characters in the novel talk about the "line" that can't be crossed, and how frustrating that line is.
I have to say that despite all the changes of the last forty years, that line has not gone away. I feel it when I am with the caregivers that take care of my parents so devotedly, twenty-four hours a day. I like to think that we are friends, and that there is genuine respect both ways. But my life has been privileged in ways that they can scarcely even imagine. Perhaps the greatest privilege was the opportunity to stay home with my own child, instead of having to leave him to care for other people's children.
The most heart-rending story in the book focuses on this very issue: the separation of a black mother and daughter, when the mother can't possibly care for her daughter and decides to put her in an orphanage. The main white character, Skeeter, only hears of her mother's maid's heartbreak at losing her daughter after Constantine, the maid, has died. But the other maids tell Skeeter that one of the hardest aspects of their lives is having to leave their own children to make a living caring for the children of (mostly idle) white women.
The picture of small-town middle-class Southern white women's lives is dead-on. I was a child in the 1960s, but even then I could see the deadening boredom yet privilege of the endless rounds of bridge, country club lunches, and Junior League meetings. Luckily, I escaped that, partly just by being born late enough that that life was no longer mandatory for middle-class white women by the time I grew up. But I enjoyed the skewering that Stockett delivers to the complacent grande dames of the country clubs.
One amazing thing is the way in which Stockett manages to make something new grow out of the well-plowed ground of race relations in the South. Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor are all hard acts to follow. But the stories of Faulkner's families, black and white, inter-related by blood and history, start before the Civil War and end around the 1940s. Faulkner didn't write about the 1960s. Welty and O'Connor touched on the intimacy and distance of these black and white cousins trenchantly in the 1960s, but it was not the centerpiece of their oevres, as it was with Faulkner. Since the 1950s and 1960s, many black writers have illuminated the lives of black people in slavery and afterwards, writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Recently, in the last forty years or so, it seems that it's been rare for a writer entered into the imaginative and emotional life of both white and black people as thoroughly as Faulkner did, with an understanding that doesn't oversimplify the complexity of either race's experience. Stockett has come close to Faulkner's high standard in that department. It's a brave attempt. As Flannery O'Connor wrote, "The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down."
She can't match his style, obviously, and there are no modernist breakthroughs here as there were in The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying. Stockett benefits from her reading of Faulkner: she lets the characters speak for themselves, as Faulkner did in those two books. It's not exactly stream-of-consciousness, and that's a good thing: The Help is a much more accessible book than The Sound and the Fury, if a less rich one textually. It's not the kind of book that scholars will be poring over for decades to come, but it's a damn good read. Whereas many if not most readers are put off by the difficulty of Faulkner's voices, with their highly cryptic allusiveness to dreams and other voices--the "tale told by an idiot" in particular--readers are quickly drawn in by the warm and very real voices of Stockett's likeable characters. Nobody likes Jason Compson.
At first Stockett's impersonation of the way black women talk sort of irritated me: it seemed a bit fake and annoying. But eventually the authenticity of the voices won me over. Some people really did talk like that; some still do. Skeeter's voice is also believable, quirky, and funny. Getting a character's voice right-- her speech patterns and accent--without "dumbing down" her voice is tricky, and Stockett nails it. She has obviously read her Huckleberry Finn, and her Alice Walker. It's hard to get these characters' voices out of your head when you put the book down, and that's a good test of a voice's authenticity.
In the epilogue, Stockett goes into memoir mode and tells why she wrote the book: in part it was in tribute to the black woman who raised her. I kind of wondered why she didn't just write a memoir; why did she feel as if she needed to write a novel, when her own story and Demetrie's story was so compelling? I think it might be because she wanted it to be about more than just herself and Demetrie. She was able to populate her book with not just middle-class white women, but a memorable "white trash" woman too; not just with saintly black women but with at least one mean and bitter one. This terrain of black and white women was treacherous: she could have lapsed into caricature and stereotype and sentimentality, and at times she comes pretty close. But in the end, the black women are not all saints and the white women are not all snotty, frigid, and lazy.
She says there is one line in The Help that sums up the meaning of the book:
"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 thought."