The blurb proclaiming it to be the other side of Gone with the Wind sounded like too much hype but on reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I found that I liked it even more than Gone with the Wind. A book set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, it portrays a vivid picture of the lives and struggles of the black maids who are employed as domestic helps by the rich and middle class white women.
The book has a wonderful meta-fictional plot structure with the stories of the three main protagonists woven around the story of one of them who is writing a book that narrates the stories of the coloured maids. Many of the characters live and breathe out of the pages, and the descriptions of life and society in the nineteen sixties are sometimes so lifelike that the reader feels transported to the scene.
The most interesting of the three protagonists is Aibileen, a middle aged black woman who is raising her seventeenth white child with a great deal of affection even as she mourns for her young son who was recently killed. The other two are Minny, a bold and independent woman who often gets fired from her post or talking back to her employers and Skeeter, the young white woman who is a misfit among her group of friends and finds solace in writing.
Aibileen works for Elizabeth Leefolt, a housewife whose life revolves around friends, outfits and parties. Aibileen is one of the most well sketched out characters in the book – she reflects dispassionately that the White children whom she raised love her like a mother until one morning when they grow up and learn about the invisible walls between the black and the white people, walls that do not exist in a child’s world. She bears no grudges against this state of things and finds solace in writing down her prayers every night. Though she is non-judgmental of the pettiness, prejudice and evil around her, she is also an observer of people. Aibileen for example notices that while the vacuous Elizabeth is too empty headed to be evil, she does not have strong feelings of any kind either and regards her children as nuisances to be tolerated, while the vicious Hilly who relentlessly battles to keep the black maids down is a good mother to her own children. This keen sense of observation combined with her natural penchant for storytelling makes her a fine writer and in the open ending, it seems likely that she would go on to write much more than Miss Myrna’s domestic advice columns.
Minny, the spirited young woman with a flair for cooking and housework is the second pivot of the novel. Unlike the gentle, contemplative Aibileen, Minny fiercely stands up for herself against her oppressors and is perpetually angry with the unfairness of the world. Through her interactions with Celia – her employer with a white trash background, and her work with Skeeter on the book, Minny finds the courage to also stand up against her abusive husband.
Skeeter, the young White woman whose book is at the core of the novel is the third protagonist. Skeeter dislikes life in Jackson where she has not many emotional connections and that offers her nothing in way of intellectual stimulation. Her interviews with Aibileen, Minny and the other maids bring out the stories of small town life in Mississippi in the nineteen sixties – where a black man is blinded for using a White bathroom, where the lives of black maids can be destroyed by one word from their ex-employers, but also where deep and intense friendships exist between the black and white people. The entire book revolves around how Skeeter manages to collect the stories from the maids, and how all their lives are redeemed and transformed by means of storytelling. In the process of writing the book, Skeeter finds out about her beloved maid’s whereabouts and in another open ending, finally moves to a potentially more interesting life in the big city where the writers live.
The main antagonist of the book who almost personifies the prejudiced system is Skeeter’s friend Hilly who collects donations for the poor people in Africa while treating the black maids around her as less than human, and feverishly takes on projects such as constructing separate bathrooms for the coloured helps partly out of her own prejudice and partly to further her husband’s political ambitions.
Several scenes that remain with the reader long after the book is finished, like Aibileen’s reassurances to the child May Mobeley that she was ‘smart, kind and important’ and her poignant farewell from the child as she retires from being a domestic help and makes a fresh start in life. Though there are external references such as the Vietnam war and the Bob Dylan song ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’, the book’s focus is less on history and more on the intimate world of home and the neighbourhood and the relationships between people, that makes it no less important. A brilliant and riveting read.
Though film based on the book is a very good adaptation and one that I enjoyed watching, somehow it does not make the same impact as the book. Which is hardly surprising, as very few movie adaptations live up to the promise of the original book, one of the few exceptions being Gone with the wind.
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality