At a time when Barack Obama is the US President, it may take some effort to remember a time when blacks were not allowed to share the same seats as whites in buses or live in the same neighbourhoods. However, the rights that blacks enjoy have come after much struggle. Kathryn Stockett's The Help showcases one such struggle—of black women who worked as maids in white households, who raised white babies and who, once those babies grew up and the poison of racism made it impossible to tend to the grown-up children, left to tend to new families.
Stockett assumes the voices of three narrators, who tell their stories in alternating chapters. The setting is 1960s' Jackson, Mississippi, when the old walls of segregation are being weakened little by little by news from the outside world. There's Aibileen Clark, a maternal black maid who works at Miss Leefolt and looks after Mae Mobley, Miss Leefolt's daughter. Minny Jackson is Aibileen's friend, with a reputation, apart from being the best cook in the town, of having a mouth loud enough to get her kicked out of her jobs. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is a young white woman who dreams of finding a job in the New York publishing world. (Her story closely resembles Stockett's own, who also moved from Mississippi to New York to work for a magazine.)
Their stories come together when Skeeter is advised by a stern New York publisher that she ought to write not about lazy subjects but "about what disturbs you." Having grown up in a town where racism swings from the outright "activism" of her childhood friend Hilly Holbrooke to the insidious hate of her own mother, Skeeter decides to undertake a secret project chronicling the experiences of black maids, that is, the details of spending their lives working for white families.
The Help is the story of how Aibileen, Minny and several other maids come to share their stories of love and bitterness with Skeeter over coffee in Aibileen's house, a project of such secrecy that Skeeter has to tell her mother she is working on a life of Jesus Christ. Mississippi in the 1960s is the zenith of segregation, made all the more apparent for the voices raised against it. At a crucial point in the book, an NAACP member is shot in the head in front of his family. Libraries don't allow blacks to enter and a black man's tongue is taken out for speaking to an "outsider" about the "situation".
In such a scenario, Skeeter drives up to Aibileen's every other day and— after a false start— begins taking diligent notes on her typewriter. The women talk about everything, from being made to pay for the silver they never stole to being helped unexpectedly in a moment of sudden misfortune. Stockett makes the stories the central theme of the book (even though, unsatisfyingly, we never hear most of them) but she also allows minor distractions in the form of Skeeter's on-now-off-now alliance with a handsome young man, or the sidelined story of Minny's abusive husband.
The villain of the piece is Hilly, a stock racist who, at the novel's beginning, is championing the building of separate toilets for black maids. From here to her final humiliation (an exciting sub-plot relating to the eccentric but golden-hearted Minny), The Help moves through several nerve-wracking twists before coming to a — what can only be called — rather hastily-arrived finale.
The Help has its heart at the right place, and in its imagining of the black women's voice, it lends an authenticity which only a personal experience could have supplied. In a moving afterword, Stockett reveals how she never understood the silent suffering of her own black maid until long after her death which happened when Stockett was only 16.
However, the book must be accused of borrowed characterisation. Consider Aibileen who matches every stereotype that one may harbour about black people, not seeing the irony of her own observation on meeting one of her white kids, now grown up:
"And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years old. It’s always nice seeing the kids grown up fine."
This description, and many such, made me a little uncomfortable, because they played into the long-suffering image of black people that has been mythologised by popular culture—the gentle sacrifice, the immense capacity for self-denial. Why are black characters so devoid of ill will in novels about racism? How do they stand being good to the children they raise, knowing fully well that they will grow up to become dyed-in-the-wool racists? It completely boggles the mind. It actually reminds me of how prostitutes are mostly shown to have hearts of gold, like the reader would be uncomfortable with any other description, lest it accentuates the reader's imagined discomfort with her morally compromised position.
The Help is a well-written, imaginatively peopled (in fact, too imaginatively) novel. But in a post-racial world, I would like to read about characters that are real and don't fit such easy patterns as the long-suffering black maid, the evil white woman who meets her comeuppance, and so on.