Compelling. Authentic. Important.
When I first heard of the book, a book about the lives of women in Mississippi in the 1960s, I have to admit I groaned. I was afraid, you see, because I grew up in Mississippi in the 1970s and 1980s, and I didn’t think that an outsider — a writer in New York — would “get it.” I worried that the depiction of my home state would be rude or unfair. That the characters would speak in unintelligible dialect. That we would … so help me … look bad. But this novel looked beyond the surface, and it shows.
The Help is a sensitively written, authentic piece about the lives of black women in the Mississippi of the 1960s, the white women whose children they raised and houses they cleaned, and a few — a very few — who were starting to ask questions about change. About the way that things should be. About the way that things were.
The novel takes place entirely in the domestic sphere, in people’s houses, at the sparkling Jitney 14 and the Piggly Wiggly with sawdust on the floor, at Broadmoor Baptist preschool and at the Bookworm, and in and out of Beemon’s and Brent’s drugs, where, I can tell you, you could still get a freshly made limade from the soda jerk in 1986. Interspersed throughout the book, in the background, almost, are the headlines changing the country — demonstrations, arrests, “that skirmish” in Vietnam that was sure to be resolved quickly. But these things barely pierced the consciousness of the women and their husbands, as they were wrapped up in plans for the League benefit, lunch at the country club, and who said what to whom.
Law, as Aibileen would say, I felt like I was back home again.
“Who are his people?” the women asked when a new man was introduced. “Is he a Greenwood Whitworth or a Natchez?” Is he one of us, they asked. How do we categorize him? How do we figure out what and who he is? What’s his history?
What’s his history? In a world where college boyfriends are lifelong spouses and childhood playmates are midlife bridge partners, this matters. These things matter. And the rest of the world kind of fades into the background. Which is exactly how Kathryn Stockett handles this book. She focuses, rightly, on the women and their sphere. Their Pappagallo shoes. Their Belhaven houses. Their bridge club. Their benefit. Their chance to shine.
The pettiness that shines through, the cutting, the social strata — that’s just a bonus.
The domestic help are no less real. Their stories are different, as they experience bridge club from behind the gleaming teapot and the silver that the women they worked for would undoubtedly count afterward. They view this life through a different lens, one that has to wear a white uniform to gain admission to the fancy grocery store. One that goes home late and tired to a small house in a neighborhood across town. One that puts two dinners on the table on Friday nights, one at work and one at home, and one that relies on children to help out at home, in order to make it all work out.
As they raise white children like Mae Mobley and Ross at work, their own children come home to an empty house after school. A neighborhood boy is beaten for a triviality that violates Jim Crow. A church rallies to support members in need.
Against the backdrop of poverty and racism, the bravery of a few women shines through, in a small attempt to voice the unvoicable. To make a difference.
This book, the book that I feared opening, has quickly jumped to the top of my list of favorite books, and I’m recommending it to everyone I know. It paints a true, if sometimes painful, picture of my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, and it absorbed me completely. The writing is beautiful, the characters real, and the message? That one must speak out if there is to be change, couldn’t be more timely.
Even though, as the author says on page 24, the job will be difficult. After all, “changing Jackson, Mississippi, [won’t] be like changing a lightbulb.”
This review done as part of a Mother Talk blog book tour.