If you don’t talk about the trouble in your community, does the trouble still exist? That’s the question Miss Eugenia Phelan faces in 1963 when she begins asking the colored women of Jackson, Mississippi, what it’s like to work as maids for white families. Many things could be said, but the maids don’t want to talk and the white women wouldn’t know what to talk about if asked.
For them, racism is a lifestyle they cannot recognize. It isn’t only the unjust acceptance of a black boy being beaten for using the wrong bathroom. None of the main characters in this novel would do something horrible like that, but many of them do believe the maids are essentially unlike their employers. They probably carry Negro diseases. They are intellectually inferior. And if one of them act as if there is no difference between whites and blacks, they may as well be insulting the family. All of this is condoned by those who claim to disbelieve it, because it isn’t what they believe that counts in many cases. It’s what Mississippi believes.
Kathryn Stockett’s beautiful debut novel, The Help, is told masterfully by three narrators: Aibileen, an older woman who has a habit of finding a new family to work for once the children get to be 5-7 years old (because that’s when they stop treating her like she’s one of the family and start treating her like black woman); Minny, a short, fiery woman who can’t hold her tongue often enough; and Miss Phelan, who is called Miss Skeeter because of her appearance and wants to be a writer and get out from under her mother’s thumb. The novel starts and ends with Aibileen, who has a strong accent when speaking but writes beautiful prose. She has been writing her prayers for years, due to some encouragement she received from a teacher. If she could only go to the white library to check out the good books, she’d be in heaven.
Aibileen is old friends with Minny, who loses her job near the beginning of the story. She helps Minny get a new job, dodge the wrath of the book’s main villain who doesn’t want her to get any job, and thus set up a major conflict in the story. If it gets out that Minny is working for someone after being fired by Hilly Holbrook, Hilly will first use lies, then use social pressure, to force the person to dismiss her and maybe run her out of town.
Kathryn Stockett has a beautiful, rich story in The Help. Her characters are people you likely know. Little details emerge even in the final few pages that open up the people in this version of Jackson, Miss. Her writing is unpretentious; her setting like the other side of town.