I'll admit it. The movie ads introduced me to this novel. In case you haven't seen them, "The Help" tells the story of Black women who worked for white families in early 1960's Mississippi.
This time period is one I have studied extensively so even a fictional account of it drew me in.
Just to give the reader context, Mississippi in the early 1960's was segregated and ruled by whites. In 1942 Mississippi increased the penalty for the felony of interracial marriage (illegal by statute since 1865) to ten years imprisonment. It was illegal for white nurses to care for "colored persons" and hospitals were statutorily required to have separate entrances (not just separate wards) for "colored" and white persons.
In May 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the five cases which proceeded as Brown v. Board of Education--holding that separate educational facilities for the races are inherently unequal. In 1956, Mississippi passed laws in defiance that required separate schools for the races, segregation on buses and trains, and permitted businesses to refuse to serve persons as they wished.
In 1957 in neighboring Arkansas, the Little Rock Central High School was ordered desegregated by the Federal Courts but Arkansas' Governor Faubus refused. To restore order following the violent protests, President Eisenhower sent in the Army. Nine Black students attended Little Rock Central High School that year. The following fall, the governor closed all Little Rock high schools for the entire school year because of the forced integration. Such was the antipathy toward Black students who dared to attend the much better high schools.
In 1958, the Mississippi legislature enacted a law which permitted the closure of public parks to prevent integration. Racist laws were enacted in the American South even after this time, such as the 1963 ordinance in Birmingham, Alabama, which mandated segregation of restaurants, recreational facilities and bathrooms, and the 1967 ordinance in Sarasota, Florida which segregated beaches.
Against this backdrop, Ms. Stockett places her characters: a white writer-journalist, Eugenia Phelan (better known as "Skeeter"), a Black nanny/housekeeper Aibileen (I cannot find her last name, if it is given), and Minny Jackson, also a Black maid or housekeeper in Jackson, Mississippi. The storyline unfolds through their three distinct points of view, as every few chapters the narrative moves to another of their voices.
This method of telling the story was interesting and very effective, but I had a real problem with the way the dialect was written for the Black characters. To me, the Blacks' dialect didn't flow and was actually difficult to understand at times, on first pass. Perhaps a few more apostrophes might have helped, to show the omissions in the words. I did get used to it as the book went on, but I've read other books with heavy dialect that have flowed much better.
Interestingly, Stockett decided to not use any sort of dialect for the deep-southern whites. Some reviewers have written that this demonstrates unforgivable racism, but the entire content of the book and the humanity of the characters makes me feel that that's not the case. The language serves to make the contrast even more stark, which I thought furthered one of the points of the story.
Other than the dialect, I really enjoyed the novel. The plot is great and well-executed. We get to know the characters as they confront the latest segregationist campaign: Skeeter's best friends in the Junior League, much to her dismay, create the Home Help Sanitation Initiative--pushing the idea that each home must have a separate colored bathroom for "the help." In response, Skeeter asks the forbidden question: what's it like to be a Black maid in Jackson, Mississippi? Telling their stories becomes her mission.
Along the way, Skeeter confronts gender stereotypes as she desires a career as a writer; she digs into the secrets surrounding her own much-beloved nanny/housekeeper's sudden departure, and we discover the vast differences in the relationships between "the help" and their employers ranging from deep trust and compassion to antipathy.
Although fictional, this book is rooted in the author's experience of being raised in the deep South by a Black maid whom she loved deeply. Her understanding shows, both in the honesty with which she portrays her characters and in how she does not shy away from the ugliness of the times.
I highly recommend "The Help," although I hardly need to, since it spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list.
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