Reflections: The Help

There is something about Kathryn Stockett's The Help. This novel about the entanglement of racism and the expectations for cultured white women in the American South circa the mid twentieth-century has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for 62 weeks and counting. One cannot avoid an at least osmotic awareness of the title as it pops up so frequently in conversation and in the hands of strap-hangars.

Readers find Stockett's story attractive for its easy narrative style. Events are told from different perspectives as is needful in a segregated society, each side filling in details missed or differently experienced.  The physically awkward and intellectually ambitious Ms. Skeeter Phelan fills the heroine role. She is a white woman raised by a black nurse who risks her social status to write the untold story of the black domestics who work for the women in her town. She is easy for the modern, liberal reader to identify with as she seems the only white character to have anything like an identifiable relationship to the extent of the problems caused by the oppression of an entire segment of the population. Perhaps identification is too easy; Skeeter and her subjects only flirt with the real dangers posed by the civil rights movement--dangers barely engaged with by the book--thereby allowing the real circumstances experienced by black Americans and their active sympathizers to be rendered aesthetic and anodyne. Those concerns aside, there is no denying that Skeeter is a compelling character, fully realized and lovable. She is more than just a Junior League crusader: she is a devoted but put upon daughter, a reader, a woman recognizing the gap education can create between a young adult's past and future associates.

The other main voices of the novel are two domestics, Minnie and Aibileen. Each feels the injustice of circumstances, and each embodies a different response to it. Minnie gets her licks where she can, refusing to tolerate anything beyond a defined baseline of humiliation from her white employers. Pushed, she verbally lashes out, which often ends in her termination and leads to more violent than average beatings from her alcoholic husband. Her saving grace on the job market is her extraordinary culinary ability. Minnie's friend Aibileen responds to the entrenched habits of a racist town and country more meekly, believing that adults who've been raised to see a qualitative difference between black and white will never see beyond those divisions. Her tack is to influence her employer's children, teaching them that skin color provides little in the way of character insight. The stories of Minnie and Aibileen, like that of Skeeter, succeed at gripping the reader. They are told in dialect--a risky move for Stockett and one that initially raised my politically correct hackles--but that does nothing but communicate the shifted perspective and remind the reader how distinct the cultures of the black and white members of the area have become because of their historical separation.

Stockett's novel succeeds, undeniably, as a fiction. It tells a gripping story that the willing reader falls into, creating a believable world of interpersonal relationships and avoiding some of the most obvious pitfalls of writing on the tender subject of race in America. For all that, I find myself repulsed by it, and it took me several weeks after finishing to locate where that feeling came from and to what degree it was just. What I found was that Stockett's narrative impulses work at counter purpose to Skeeter's own project. Skeeter wants to humanize a group of women who have been dehumanized in the eyes of the establishment. In order to get their story heard, Sheeter and the maids risk their personal safety, and require some kind of protection to prevent the piece from being traced back to them. It will be published anonymously, of course, but with all the details of domestic circumstances that rise to the surface in detailing daily lives, they might be exposed. To prevent this eventuality, the women include in the text an act of humiliation perpetrated by Minnie on the president of the Junior League and the leader of town opinion, one Miss Hilly. The act itself is bestial, cruel, and disgusting all at once. In other words, it dehumanizes Minnie, destroying with one swipe all the sympathy built up around her and her plight over the previous pages. That this is what Stockett comes up with to keep the story rolling leaves this reader, at least, with a very bad taste in her mouth.