I just finished reading The Help, the first novel by Mississippi born Kathryn Stockett. The story is about the interwoven lives of the black maids and the privileged white women they serve in Jackson Mississippi circa 1963. I could not put it down. It was a great story, and yet, I'm not sure what to think.
On the one hand, the two black maids who shape the story, Aibileen and Minny, jump off the page, fully drawn and pulsing with life as it surely was for many of the southern black women who worked six days a week for white families -- cooking their meals and raising their children but forbidden to use the family bathroom. It's a world that is a foreign to me as can be. I grew up in New Jersey -- without domestic help and in a neighborhood where only a few families even had a weekly cleaning service. My community was predominantly white, the few black families I knew were middle class just like mine, with mothers who stayed home and fathers who worked white collar jobs in Philadelphia. And that has remained true--I still don't have a lot of black friends and the ones I do have are living lives a lot like mine. I don't understand racism, never experienced Jim Crow laws and have certainly never seen or been subjected to the type of embedded racism that rules the lives of the people in The Help, where lines between classes and colors are sharply drawn and difficult to cross. The story in this book was like a window into a parallel world. I sped through, eager to understand the specific time and place of this story.
None of which changes the fact that this book is deeply flawed. It was a fairly ludicrous conceit that these hard working, strong and loving black women would risk their lives and their livelihoods to help out a young white woman. Skeeter Phelan, fresh from graduating fourth in her class from Ole Miss, decides to write an anonymous tell-all about what really goes in in the white households. She risks social isolation and *gasp* the loss of her tennis partner as word gets around that she might be the author of the book, but the black women who share their stories risk much more--and the truth of that plays out in a very muted fashion, as the real events of the time barely get a mention in this book.
The biggest flaw, the one I couldn't get over, is that the author cannot view the African American experience other than through the prism of her white, privileged life. Kathryn Stockett doesn't seem to notice that while she renders the speech patterns of the housekeepers in southern dialect as thick as corn pone, the white society women of Jackson speak perfectly enunciated English, even the poor Celia from Sugar Ditch who grew up without shoes or electricity or much education. It's the differences between black and white that she sees, not the shared common experience of everyone being born and raised in Mississippi. The black folk in this book are decent and hardworking for the most part, and the white families they work for are only concerned with status and frankly are pretty lousy people and worse parents. I see this sort of mind set sometimes from some of my liberal friends who want to believe that poor people are the salt of the earth. I'm no brain surgeon but I'm pretty sure there are good and bad of every color and every rung of the social ladder. People are people and while some of them are great, some of them suck.
The blondus ex machina device of the noble white woman sweeping in to raise up the black community by sharing their story rang false, and it is hard to understand how the context of the story supports her ability to gain the trust of the domestics. Why would they risk everything they had to contribute to Skeeter's book? These women knew all the rules, and lived in fear of breaking them. The book makes very clear that transgressions of race are punished with the inability to find another job in the small world of Jackson where word travels like wildfire and reputations are ruined in a heartbeat. And the whole "grateful negro" shtick of having the black Minister get every member of his congregation to sign a copy of the book for "the white woman" left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
I am left to wonder what kind of book this could have been in the hands of an African American author who would have had a better sense of tone and place. Or maybe what I'm wishing is that the author had a black collaborator, so that just like in the fictional book within this book, we could benefit from the two separate racial experiences of growing up in Jackson. When I was in college my favorite professor always used to admonish her students to "write what you know". This book could have been so much better had Kathryn Stockett taken that advice.
Anyone else have an opinion on this?