By Kathryn Stockett
When Open Letters asked me to read a book from the New York Times Bestseller List, they were admirably forthright about what I could expect. Managing Editor Steve Donoghue’s exact words were, “I wouldn’t get my hopes up, if I were you.” And I already knew what he meant; after all, we tend to associate the Bestseller List with the least common denominator of book-reading – this is the stuff everybody reads, and the more exposure you have to just what everybody is like (in airports, at ballparks, in waiting rooms), the lower your hopes sink for the List, no matter how influential an industry standard it is.
But I wasn’t ten pages into Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel The Help before I’d forgotten all of that and was completely caught up in the marvelous narrative she lays out. The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 – Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement are on the news every night, but in the deep South Tupperware suburbs of Stockett’s scene, genuine racial equality is as far out of reach as the moon. One of her main characters, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, is Harper Lee’s Scout grown up – she’s gawky, intelligent, considerate, and increasingly seething with outrage at the racist hypocrisy of her social set in Jackson: nervous, oblivious homeowners who have nothing but disdain and condescension for the black women (the eponymous “help”) who clean their houses and raise their children. Skeeter decides to write a book about this deplorable situation, and she uses a couple of those maids, wise Aibileen and temperamental Minny, as her Deep Throats.
Readers are no doubt supposed to identify closely with Skeeter’s apparently doomed fight against the complacency of racial injustice (a struggle given extra irony by Barack Obama’s election as President), but The Help belongs first, last, and completely to Aibileen.
When the story opens, she’s working for the Leefolts – the imperious, distant father, the shrill, taut mother, and Mae Mobley, the Leefolts’ little three-year-old girl, Aibileen’s “Baby Girl,” the seventeenth little one Aibileen has raised from baby to grown child. Aibileen’s own child, Treelore, a promising intellectual trying to work his way to a better life, had died in an accident shortly before she took employment with the Leefolts, and from them she puts up with all the abuse the time and place can dish out, for the sake of Mae Mobley.
These two are the heart of The Help, and there are times when their conversations turn saccharine enough to strip the enamel off your teeth:
“One day a wise Martian come down to Earth to teach us people a thing or two,” I say.
“Martian? How big?”
“Oh, he about six-two.”
“What’s his name?”
“Martian Luther King.”
She take a deep breath and lean her head down on my shoulder. I feel her three-year-old heart racing against mine, flapping like butterflies on my white uniform.
“He was a real nice Martian, Mister King. Looked just like us, nose, mouth, hair up on his head, but sometime people looked at him funny and sometime, well, I guess sometime people was just downright mean.”
I could get in a lot of trouble telling her these little stories, especially with Mister Leefolt. But Mae Mobley know these are “secret stories.”
“Why Aibee? Why was they so mean to him?” she ask.
“Cause he was green.”
But Stockett’s shining belief in her own story carries even such scenes easily, and the few weaknesses she displays as an author (this would have been a much more provocative novel if Mrs. Leefolt weren’t such a predictable pastiche of a brittle, overwhelmed housewife – Aibileen is far too strong a character to require such a weak foil) are more than countered by the deft control she exercises over how she progresses through her story. One particular trick she’s thoroughly mastered is the shifting of mood – she can have you smiling over one of Aibileen’s anecdotes only second before she has you grimacing over the same memory:
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 was calling everybody including hisself Mama, and calling his daddy Mama too. Did that for a long time. Nobody worry about it. Course when he start playing dress-up in his sister’s Jewel Taylor twirl skirts and wearing Chanel Number 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 of that boy until I couldn’t stand it no more.
The trick filters even into her evocations of setting. Aibileen’s thoughts always bring things to ground:
Even though it’s the third week of October, the summer beats on with the rhythm of a clothes dryer. The grass in Miss Celia’s yard is still a full-blown green. The orange dahlias are still smiling drunk up at the sun. And every night, the damn mosquitoes come out for their damn blood hunt, my sweat pads went up three cents a box, and my electric fan is broke dead on my kitchen floor.
The maids know that they’re jeopardizing their jobs – and maybe even their lives – by helping “Skeeter” with her book (their names are changed, of course, but Jackson is still a small enough town); they’re told it in no uncertain terms by those few white employers who get wind of what’s going on. But these maids – especially Aibileen – are old enough to remember having nothing during the Depression, and they’ve read about Rosa Parks, and they’ve heard Dr. King’s speeches on the television sets of the families they tend, and it’s affected them. One of the best, most memorable parts of The Help is the way Stockett captures the sheer tension of changing times. When Mrs. Leefolt instructs Aibileen that from now on she can’t use the house’s guest-bathroom, for instance, the unspokens vibrate in the air:
I put the iron down real slow, feel that bitter seed grow in my chest, the one planted after Treelore died. My face goes hot, my tongue twitchy. I don’t know what to say to her. All I know is, I ain’t saying it. And I know she ain’t saying what she want to say either and it’s a strange thing happening here cause nobody saying nothing and we still managing to have us a conversation.
I finished The Help in one sitting and enjoyed it very, very much. It’s wise, literate, and ultimately deeply moving, a careful, heartbreaking novel of race and family that digs a lot deeper than most novels on such subjects do. I won’t say it’s changed my mind about what The New York Times Bestseller List represents, but knowing this book made that list does, in fact, get my hopes up.
Rita Consalvos works for an architectural firm in Sao Paolo, Brazil. This is her second piece for Open Letters.