February 2014 - Tidewater Review

The Help

as reviewed by

Anne Stinson

The problem isn’t that there aren’t any good books around. Sometimes it seems as if there are too many. There are just so many from which to choose! I walk into a bookstore now and it reminds me of my younger days when I would walk into Bernie Boyle’s grocery in Emmitsburg back in the last century. Bernie kept one whole glass counter filled with penny candy. His sons, Pat and Mike, were patient as we big spenders made decisions to match our sugar addiction.
Someone should write a book about stores like Bernie’s. His store was so up-to-date that we felt a bit show-offy using a cart to carry the whole market list at once. This self-service was a big change from the old system of handing the shopping list to Bernie and having him scurry off to fill the order, one item at a time. But, I digress.
Of course, making a choice between all of the books flooding the shelves is like deciding what kind of penny candy will yield the greatest satisfaction.
I say all this to let you know that I do not have an exciting introduction to a new book. The Thanksgiving to New Year’s stretch was, as always, full of distractions from the routine, although I did read three books that shall remain nameless. To mortify the authors of self-published, first novels or memoirs, or whatever ~ books that cry out for help on the basics of writing ~ well, it’s too cruel to publicly hold them up to scorn.
The most honest way to praise the awkward book is to admire the effort expended. I personally have never written a whole book, but I am aware of the time and hope invested in its creation. The volume of most novels is in the 300-page range. That’s impressive, an accomplishment in itself and worth praise. I sincerely hope that the motivated writer, having passed the first hurdle, will persevere.
Those three books, all by beginning writers, didn’t make the cut, but one book shone like gold on a tray full of brass. It’s not a new book, and I missed it at the time it was a best-seller. Dear friend Jeanne Vail was appalled by my lapse and determined on the spot that I must mend my ignorance. She handed me her copy of The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s book made into a movie of the same title.
To my shame, I saw and loved the movie, but somehow skipped over the book (copyright 2006, a Penguin paperback printed in 2009). If any of you made the same error, there’s a fabulous treat waiting for you. A book of this stature is never out of date.
Stockett was born and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the period of the civil rights movement for desegregation. African-American women in Jackson, as in most of the Deep South, worked as maids in white women’s houses. They cleaned, laundered and ironed for the family, cooked and served meals, and raised the white children while their white mamas spent their time shopping for clothes, meeting at their clubs, lolling at swimming pools (careful not to ruin the results of their trips to beauty salons), and joining friends for lunch.
If a black maid complained or was “sassy,” she would be fired and blackballed when she tried to find a job elsewhere. The pattern was as old and unchanged as the maid’s mother, grandmothers, and great-greats endured, back to the days of slavery. But this was the 1960s when the times, they were a-changing. Equal rights were slow to catch on in Mississippi.
The book focuses mostly on the maids, written in their authentic speech patterns ~ probably the most accurate capture of Southern speech I have ever heard or seen in print. In contrast to their careful submission at work, their rare times to relax with other maids reveal how exhausting it is to be in a house where your every action is monitored and suspected of rebellion or theft. They are quite aware that even peaceful, non-violent demonstrations are handled by police with clubs, fire hoses, attack dogs and crowded jails. They are used to unhappy endings.
Just as the maids have a leader, Aibileen, so have the white women. The top society woman, Hilly, is a familiar face in real life, as well as in fiction. She accepts that it’s natural for her to be the automatic boss of her crowd, the queen bee of all events, and one who controls the ideas of her white counterparts.
Although Hilly is married with children, she resents the wife of her former beau. He dumped her to marry a country girl with few refinements. Hilly humiliates her in every encounter they have.
Hilly also looks down on Skeeter, her childhood best friend, who went to college and is still unmarried. Without being rude, Skeeter doesn’t take orders from Hilly, and often dares to question Hilly’s attitude of royalty. Skeeter balks at Hilly’s dismissal of the racial difficulties in Jackson, refusing to join the chorus of yes-men, or more correctly, yes-women flunkies. Skeeter befriends Aibileen.
As the racial situation becomes more tense, Skeeter breaks the rules she learned as a child ~ when you’re young it’s okay to hug your nursemaid. By the age of sixteen or seventeen, do not touch, joke with or smile at her. Skeeter talks openly with Aibileen and is curious to know of the black maid’s opinions of the white people’s reluctance to change the caste situation in the South.
Eventually Aibileen convinces 12 of her friends, black maids all, who begin meeting with Skeeter at Aibileen’s house at night to share the catalog of insults and disrespect each of them swallowed daily. The resulting book is a compilation of their diaries about their lives below the radar of white contempt.
The book is an immediate sensation. Hilly recognizes her own behavior in one of the 12 chapters, but adamantly denies it could possibly be based in Jackson. The whole town was certain it was local unvarnished truth. Hilly’s downfall is fittingly appropriate.
The book about a book is a revealing picture of life in the South at a dreadful time in the United States. It’s fiction that reads like absolutely true facts. The subject could have unfolded from a maudlin or fiercely angry point of view, but Stockett got the tone exactly right.
If perchance you haven’t read The Help, stop everything else and run, don’t walk, to your nearest library or bookstore. It’s proof that late really is better than never.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.