by Kathryn Stockett
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
Some books are worth reading even if you see the movie — and Kathryn Stockett’s raw and real telling of The Help is one of them.
In it’s essence, The Help is a honest portrayal of race during the heated 1960’s, and threaded together with stories of women and their roles in society portrays a real and sometimes humorous account of life leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. Set in the South and in a time when segregation was not only alive and well, but also in an era when women were treated as a lower species, three women give their personal accounts from three very different perspectives. Their lives are woven together with the ties that bind most females – motherhood, friendship, insecurity, and love.
Aibileen Clark is a black woman who works for a prominent white family in town. She does all of the cleaning, a lot of the cooking, and is the primary caretaker for the family’s toddler – the sweet (if somewhat slow) little blonde Mae Mobley. Aibileen and her inherent kindness cannot help but treat Mae Mobley as if she were her very own child, nor can she help finding a bit of a reprieve in the chubby little child for the empty hole in her heart that used to house her own son. Treelore died following an accident while on the job, and a part of Aibileen died right along with him. Raising the little girl can be an arduous task, especially in the face of the child’s mother and the challenges she brings with her. Miss Leefolt is as clueless as she is disengaged from the child, only tending to Mae Mobley when it suits her and spending more time scolding the child than loving her. Aibileen does her best to reinforce positive feelings with Mae Mobley, and the little girl clings to the black housekeeper as she would a mother, finding solace in her ever-faithful and forgiving arms. As discontent breeds between the white mother and her black maid, things in the household gain tension.
” ‘What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I stop it?’
It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation.
So I took that pink, screaming baby in my arms. Bounced her on my hip to get the gas moving and it didn’t take two minutes before Baby Girl stopped her crying, got to smiling up at me like she do. But Miss Leefolt, she don’t pick up her own baby for the rest a the day. I seen plenty a womens get the baby blues after they done birthing. I reckon I thought that’s what it was.
Here’s something about Miss Leefolt: she not just frowning all the time, she skinny. Her legs is so spindly, she look like she done growed em last week. Twenty-three years old and she lanky as a fourteen-year-old boy. Even her hair is thin, brown, see-through. She try to tease it up, but it only make it look thinner. Her face be the same shape as that red devil on the redhot candy box, pointy chin and all. Fact, her whole body be so full a sharp knobs and corners, it’s no wonder she can’t soothe that baby. Babies like fat. Like to bury they face up in you armpit and go to sleep. They like big fat legs too. That I know.
By the time she a year old, Mae Mobley following me around everwhere I go. Five o’clock would come round and she’d be hanging on my Dr. Scholl shoe, dragging over the floor, crying like I weren’t never coming back. Miss Leefolt, she’d narrow up her eyes at me like I done something wrong, unhitch that crying baby off my food. I reckon that’s the risk you run, letting somebody else raise you chilluns.
Mae Mobley two years old now. She got big brown eyes and honey-color curls. But the bald spot in the back of her hair kind a throw things off. She get the same wrinkle between her eyebrows when she worried, like her mama. They kind a favor except Mae Mobley so fat. She ain’t gone be no beauty queen. I think it bother Miss Leefolt, but Mae Mobley my special baby. “
But one thing Aibileen can always depend on is the outright sass and tell-it-like-it-is attitude from her best friend. Minny Jackson is a woman who was born and bred for tending a white woman’s house, but although Minny is as adept at her job as Aibileen, Minny just can’t seem to hold one down. Her lack of professional stability is mostly due to Minny not knowing how to keep her mouth shut; and she has said some things to her latest employer that not even one of her famous pies could fix. A chance phone call lands her on the doorstep of the beautiful Miss. Celia, a blonde bombshell who is looking for more than just a housekeeper . . . it seems the poor woman is looking for a friend. Celia is an outcast in the small society of the Mississippi town they live in and spends her days moping around the huge house her husband has so thoughtfully provided for her. No matter how hard Celia tries to break into the cut-glass world of her peers, the ladies who call all of the shots can’t help but be threatened by her devastating good looks, not to mention the fact that she married the old beau of the Queen Bee herself – Miss. Hilly Holbrook – and as such, made an enemy for life. Celia leans on Minny in ways that make Minny uncomfortable; she’s not used to being treated as a near equal to any white woman, but she has as growing soft spot for Miss. Celia. If it wasn’t for her sassy mouth, maybe she’d have a more solid position. . . but if it wasn’t for that sassy mouth, she wouldn’t have found Miss. Celia.
” Standing on that white lady’s back porch, I tell myself, Tuck it in, Minny. Tuck in whatever might fly out my mouth and tuck in my behind too. Look like a maid who does what she’s told. Truth is, I’m so nervous right now, I’d never backtalk again if it meant I’d get this job.
I yank my stockings up from sagging around my feet – the trouble of all fat, short women around the world. Then I rehearse what to say, what to keep to myself. I go ahead and punch the bell.
The doorbell rings a long bing-bong, fine and fancy for this big mansion out in the country. It looks like a castle, gray brick rising high in the sky and left and right too. Woods surround the lawn on every side. If this place was in the storybook, there’d be witches in those woods. The kind that eat kids.
The back door opens and there stands Miss Marilyn Monroe. Or something kin to her.
‘Hey there, you’re right on time. I’m Celia. Celia Rae Foote.’
The white lady sticks her hand out to me and I study her. She might be built like Marilyn, but she ain’t ready for no screen test. She’s got flour in her yellow hairdo. Flour in her glue-on eyelashes. And flour all over that tacky pink pantsuit. Her standing in a cloud of dust and that pantsuit being so tight, I wonder how she can breathe. “
Skeeter is a white woman of privilege, having grown up the daughter of a family in the cotton business and never wanting for anything. Having lived her childhood in the direct care of a black maid who treated her with unconditional love and affection, Skeeter’s stance on employer/employee relationships are a lot different than that of her friends. As she grew up under the expert tutelage of Constantine, Skeeter knew no boundaries with black maids. She could always find a safe place wrapped up into the bosom of the woman who raised her, whereas all she could find from her actual mother was a dismissive hand. She can’t understand the logic behind Hilly’s quest to “ensure the emotional and physical safety of her family” by putting a separate bathroom in her home for the black help, and she can’t seem to grasp why her friends treat their maids wish such hushed disdain. As Hilly proceeds forward in a task of enlisting all white families with black help to install special bathrooms with an almost bulldozer-esque fervor, Skeeter begins to question the friendships she’d carried with her from childhood into adulthood. Intrigued by the dynamics and sensing a story to be found, Skeeter embarks on a quest of her own – to give the black maids, cooks, and caretakers of these white women’s homes and children a voice on a public platform.
” The first time I was ever called ugly, I was thirteen. It was a rich friend of my brother Carlton’s, over to shoot guns in the field.
‘Why you crying, girl?’ Constantine asked me in the kitchen.
I told her what the boy had called me, tears streaming down my face.
‘Well? Is you?’
I blinked, paused my crying. ‘Is I what?’
‘Now you look here, Eugenia’ — because Constantine was the only one who’d occasionally follow Mama’s rule. ‘Ugly live up on the inside. Ugly be a hurtful, mean person. Is you one a them peoples?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so,’ I sobbed.
Constantine sat down next to me, at the kitchen table. I heard the cracking of her swollen joints. She pressed her thumb hard in the palm of my hand, something we both knew meant Listen. Listen to me.
‘Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision.’ Constantine was so close, I could see the blackness of her gums. ‘You gone have to ask yourself, Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?’
She kept her thumb pressed hard in my hand. I nodded that I understood. I was just smart enough to realize she meant white people. And even though I still felt miserable, and knew that I was, most likely, ugly, it was the first time she ever talked to me like I was something besides my mother’s white child. All my life I’d been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl. But with Constantine’s thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe. “
The writer in Skeeter begins to mold her interviews of the black maids into something substantial .While initially her requests to speak with the black women was met with scorn and a lot of slammed doors, Skeeter begins to gain traction when she is able to secure the support of Aibileen, a woman very respected in her station. Skeeter’s subsequential book entitled The Help, sends a rising wave straight through the heart of her little Mississippi town, gaining speed with every story read and every bit of gossip as to who the stories are about. Aibileen and Minny are not the only contributors to the book everyone is reading and talking about; nearly every maid in town has lent her story. Putting the cold, hard truths on display for everyone to see is one way to shake things up a bit in her sleepy town, and Skeeter’s hands are all over it. Both Aibileen and Minny are surprised as to what comes out of their confessions, and of what they learn about themselves in the process.
The Help is a book that I give 4 out of 5 stars to and recommend to anyone who enjoyed the movie or is looking for a great and easy read. While the film adaptation of the book was well-done, the book dives deeper into the characters and their emotional journeys as they confront the things in their lives that perhaps they didn’t even realize were problems. Minny’s humor lends such relief to the sometimes heartbreaking accounts and reminiscences of Aibileen, and Skeeter’s transition into independent womanhood is a pleasure to witness.