Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Lots to Say, But It's All Been Said

Kathryn Stockett’s success with The Help has been phenomenal for a first book. I don’t know how she pulled it off, but the book is written from the points of view of a young white woman, Miss Skeeter, whose family always had help in Jackson, Mississippi; by an older maid named Aibeleen, who lives alone and lost her only son in a tragic accident; and by Minnie, a younger woman who is in an abusive marriage and whose anger comes out as talking back. The voices of the maids are extremely well done in deep south black English, Aibeleen’s almost impossible to understand.

When Skeeter comes home and finds the woman who raised her, Constantine, gone, she can’t quite figure it out, and no one’s talking in Jackson, a place where no one says anything bad about someone’s mama and the blacks don’t talk to the white people anyway. Skeeter’s quest to find out what happened with Constantine turns into a desire to write the stories of the maids, and we end up having the story we read while she’s in the act of taking down the maids’ stories. When she starts, Skeeter has no idea how shunned she’ll be or what danger she’s putting the maids in, until a police car stops her as she crosses the bridge from one side of town to the other. “I see open, honest fear on Aibilen’s face.” The book was skillfully written. I can’t imagine writing something as good as this book is.

It’s also a place of such deep mores that Skeeter shouldn’t be talking to the help. Skeeter has changed while in college, and now she’s at odd with the bridge club and junior league, and she can’t imagine how Hilly, a woman as set in her prejudices and the Old South ways as anyone, was her best friend. In one of the first chapters, Skeeter says, “I was hurt by how easily my friend would be willing to cast me aside.”

The story isn’t just Skeeter’s. Aibeleen’s raised lots of children over the years, and she loves Mae Mobley as much as any other. She can’t believe how the mother, Elizabeth, casts her daughter aside. When the child is being potty trained, her mother won’t set an example, “I was fixing to tell her how manykids I raised in my lifeitime and ask her what number she on, but I ended up salying alrihgt like I always do,” and so she take the child to her outside-the-house garage bathroom and demonstrates for the child herself. The people in the south in 1963 are just starting to understand there’s a Civil Rights movement. At the Community Concerns Meeting at church, “Lately the meetings is more about civil rights than keeping the streets clean and who gone work at the clothing exchange.” It started off quietly, as a prayer concern, but racial issues are heating up with black people being shot and losing their jobs over nothing. One of the maids was sent to the penitentiary because she stole some silverware and for Miss Hilly, it was a vendetta and a way of keeping people in their place.

It works. The "Help" win.