A review of The Help, Kathryn Stockett.
One of the best movies from last year was The Help based on this book by Kathryn Stockett. It is her first novel, and was only published in 2009, so it is a dazzling success to already have been turned into a movie.
I devoured this book. I found myself totally caught up in the lives of the maids, Aibileen and Minny, and their supporter Miss Skeeter. Miss Skeeter wants to be a writer, and manages to land a job writing the cleaning tips column for the local newspaper. There is one problem: she knows nothing about cleaning!
In desperation she turns to her friend’s maid, Aibileen, who is a wealth of knowledge, a veritable domestic goddess. As the two gradually negotiate a sort of friendship, Miss Skeeter’s eyes are opened to how poorly treated the help are; in fact, how blind she has been to the lives of those who work for her family.
She begins to see ‘the help’ as human beings, and approaches the idea that they might even be equal. Then comes the idea for her first book, prompted by Aibileen’s late son, who started a record of the lives of the hired help.
As she gets Aibileen to tell her story, Skeeter’s whole worldview is challenged. In spite of the risks of unemployment/poverty (at best) and violent recrimination/death (at worst), more and more hired help agree to tell their stories of the injustice and callousness of their employees. Along with the horror, there are some lovely stories, of kindness and grace.
As the women speak, they begin to wonder if they do in fact have a voice, not just through the writing project, but in wider society. They begin to see themselves as human beings worthy of respect, and they get courage from each other’s stories.
In lots of ways this book is about the power of story to not just describe, but encourage and bring about change. These are dangerous stories that challenge the present way of things. In the end, the telling of the stories, and sharing of them, do bring about change, not just personal, but a degree of political and societal change.
However, this is just a story, positioned by Stockett at a time and place where change was about to erupt. The black power movement in the south was beginning to gain momentum. Some have questioned whether it is paternalistic for a white woman to tell these stories. While for Harper Lee, telling the story of To Kill a Mockingbird was the only way of questioning the status quo, should African-American stories now be written only by African Americans? Surely there is value in exploring issues from multiple points of view.
I am cautious about the losses of censorship. At the end of the book, author Stockett tells her own story, and also says she would not presume to think she knew what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi. She quotes her own line from the novel:
Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realise, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.
One thing I like about Stockett’s book is the contrast in the dynamic faith experience of the black community, where the church is the centre of community struggle and celebration, and the sterile hypocrisy of the white community.
There is a link between the context of church and truth which extends beyond church walls, and even the community:
It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that’s been burning me up all my life.
Truth, I say inside my head, just for that feeling.
Truth in story is intrinsic to the way God works. It is core to our relationships, and the development of our sense of self in relation to God, others and the world. This novel is a great conversation-starter for the exploration of those ideas.