‘Kathryn Stockett did balance the very dangerous tightrope to walk on. She manages to tell the stories of African Americans as African Americans without sounding too preachy, especially on the angle of segregation between blacks and whites.‘
Manoa Ralte shares his experience of reading Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help.
Set in the 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, USA, ‘The Help’ is a work of fiction, but it is told in a memoir style by Aibileen, Minny and Eugenia Skeeter. All the narrators come from different walks of life – Minny and Aibileen are domestic helps for white households, and Skeeter is a college educated southerner who is the only daughter of a cotton plantation farm owner. She grew up in a huge house, confederate ideology and inspiration all around her. She doesn’t really need to do much being a liberal, as the norm for her is to get married, have lots of kids to populate Mississippi even more and then be somewhat racist or enable racist principles by doing what is supposedly expected of her. The thing is, Skeeter doesn’t really want to abide by these expectations, she wants to be a writer, she wants to call the shots. She’s tall, very unlady-like according to her mother (read confederate principles) and also blessed with curly hair which, according to her mother, is a curse of course.
Skeeter grew up with their domestic help Constantine, whom she adored and considered as family. While Skeeter was away in college, Constantine mysteriously became MIA and slowly stopped sending letters to Skeeter. No one seems to know, or seems to want to tell Skeeter what had really happened to her beloved Constantine. Skeeter’s two childhood friends Elizabeth and Hilly, also prototypes of the confederate norm, were not so kind to their domestic helps Aibileen and Minny. Skeeter, wanting to do the right thing, decided that she would embark on a mission to tell stories of injustice faced by African Americans all around her through a book. So the whole book revolves around the secrecy, the horror, the racism that revolved around Jackson, Mississippi in the 60s.
Kathryn Stockett did balance the very dangerous tightrope to walk on. She manages to tell the stories of African Americans as African Americans without sounding too preachy, especially on the angle of segregation between blacks and whites. Let me tell you, this wasn’t diluted in any form, it was straight up segregation even though much noise can be heard by the segregators even to this day. The lines and weighing scales that a reader would have gets thrown away as the story progresses. This becomes very clear when Minny herself enables the said segregation herself when Miss Celia, her employer, sits down to have lunch at the same table as her. She said,
“Every white woman I’ve ever worked for ate in the dining room as far away from the colored help as they could. And that was fine with me. “But Why? I don’t want to eat all by myself when I could eat in here with you” Miss Celia said. I didn’t even try to explain it to her. There are so many things Miss Celia is just plain ignorant about”
(Page number 215)
As a person who grew up knowing that as her normal all throughout her life, for Minny, Miss Celia doing what is considered normal human behaviour isn’t so. Furthermore she would rather enable the very social system that would disenfranchise her. This opens up the debate as to why Minny would call Miss Celia ignorant? Was she so used to segregation and accepted the unfair treatment as her fate or she knew that things wouldn’t really change and Miss Celia rocking the boat with her “liberal” ways was disrupting her flow? Stockett manages to ask these questions herself through Miss Skeeter and pass it on to the reader. She does not give signs and direction for answers though. In turn, these questions make the book read as an alarming, sometimes heartwarming, and most of all, humanizing story about women.
The reader gets a taste of diabolical humans frequently in the form of women like Hilly and her puppet enabler Elizabeth Leefolt. These women, even though hateful in their ways with the bullying, the lies, their facade, Stockett reminds you how deeply intertwined they are with their help. Aibileen’s relationship with Mae Mobley epitomizes this; Mae calls Aibileen her real mother and is way more fond of her than her biological mother who erected a separate toilet in her garage so that her help won’t pass on a disease. This disease only exists in Elizabeth’s and Hilly’s mind of course, let’s call it a Fictitious Virus. Aibileen further mentions her affection for one of the white children that she help raise,
“Now I had babies be confuse before. John Green Dudley, first word out a that boy’s mouth was Mama and he was looking straight at me. But then pretty soon he calling everybody including hisself Mama, and calling his daddy Mama too. Did that for a long time. Nobody worry bout it. Course when he start playing dress up in his sister’s Jewel Taylor twirl skirts and wearing Chanel No. 5, we all get a little concern. I looked after the Dudley family for too long, over six years. His daddy would take him to the garage and whip him with a rubber hose-pipe trying to beat the girl out a that boy.”
It becomes clearer as the book progresses that the character Eugenia Skeeter is somewhat based on Stockett and Constantine on a family maid, Demetrie, whom she adores. This is cemented on the author’s outro. In the book, Miss Skeeter did find out exactly what happened to Constantine, giving somewhat of a closure, something that this book isn’t too blessed with. Stockett is ruthless with her plots. In her defense, she needs to if she wants it to be factually correct, the grotesque crime done by whites to blacks and every bit of it. When she does not serve justice through karma, she does it with revenge and a heartwarming gesture between the characters, that’s it. Although some of the characters have no excuse for being despicable human beings, Stockett gives plenty of room for the reader to consider if we conclude that they’re evil or just souls who have acclimatized to their situation, be it black or white.
Set in the 1960s while the civil rights movement was in full swing, ‘The Help’ is an inspirational read, a must read to try and get a peek into the world of racial discrimination that exists in a land that we have all believed to be “The land where dreams come true”. Now you be the judge of that.
Manoa Ralte reads everything from instruction manuals and trashy novels to best sellers and classics. He has happily embraced his dirty thirties, and is trying to consume less carbs, not forget sunscreen, live the clean life and all of that. He is currently based out of Aizawl, Mizoram.
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