From JANET MASLIN
In “The Help,” Kathryn Stockett’s button-pushing, soon to be wildly popular novel about black domestic servants working in white Southern households in the early 1960s, one woman works especially tirelessly. She labors long into the night. She is exhausted. Her eyes are stinging, her fingers bloody and sore.
Is she ironing pleats? Scrubbing toilets? Polishing silver for an all-important meeting of the local bridge club? No way. She is Miss Skeeter Phelan, a white woman. And the white women of “The Help” don’t do those demeaning jobs. They don’t do much of anything else either.
But brave, tenacious Skeeter is different. So she is slaving away on a book that will blow the lid off the suffering endured by black maids in Jackson, Miss. Skeeter’s going to call the place “Niceville,” but she won’t make it sound nice. All of Jackson’s post-sorority girls from Ole Miss will be up in arms if Skeeter’s tell-all book sees the light of day.
The trouble on the pages of Skeeter’s book is nothing compared with the trouble Ms. Stockett’s real book risks getting into. Here is a debut novel by a Southern-born white author who renders black maids’ voices in thick, dated dialect. (“Law have mercy,” one says, when asked to cooperate with the book project. “I reckon I’m on do it.”) It’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions. And it celebrates noblesse oblige so readily that Skeeter’s act of daring earns her a gift from a local black church congregation. “This one, this is for the white lady,” the Reverend of that church says. “You tell her we love her, like she’s our own family.”
A brief word now about Ms. Stockett: When she moved to New York City from Jackson, she came to understand how deeply ambivalent she felt about her roots. If a New Yorker told her that Jackson must be beautiful, she would say it was fraught with crime. But if a New Yorker spoke contemptuously about Jackson, Ms. Stockett would rise to its defense. “Mississippi is like my mother,” she writes in an afterword to “The Help.” And you will see, after your wrestling match with this problematic but ultimately winning novel, that when it comes to the love-hate familial bond between Ms. Stockett and her subject matter, she’s telling the truth.
Expectations notwithstanding, it’s not the black maids who are done a disservice by this white writer; it’s the white folk. The two principal maid characters, the lovingly maternal Aibileen and the angry, scrappy Minny, leap off the page in all their warm, three-dimensional glory. Book groups armed with hankies will talk and talk about their quiet bravery and the outrageous insults dished out by their vain, racist employers.
The worst of these bosses, a woman known as Miss Hilly, treats Minny like a thief. And she campaigns to have Jackson households install extra toilets so that colored help will not have to use white families’ restricted bathrooms. With the kind of lead-footed linkage that runs throughout this novel — even though it may accurately reflect what Ms. Stockett witnessed in her Southern girlhood — Miss Hilly’s Junior League does its fund-raising for the sake of “the Poor Starving Children of Africa” while treating the poor African-Americans of Jackson as if they were subhuman.
Miss Hilly is enough of a witch for readers to wait eagerly for a house to fall on her. She makes herself the nemesis of each of the book’s black characters and many of its white ones. Sounding decades older than Skeeter even though the two were college roommates, Hilly shrieks villainously about the virtues of segregation and the rectitude of Mississippi’s politicians.
News of the real world seeps into the book only occasionally, with a brief televised glimpse of James Meredith integrating Ole Miss or other muffled rendered news. “There is a skirmish in Vietnam,” Skeeter notices. “The reporter seems to think it’ll be solved without much fuss.”
The tide of soapsuds rises as Skeeter comes across a copy of Jim Crow laws and is galvanized into action; as Skeeter the liberal-minded spinster begins dating the son of an intolerant local politician; as Skeeter begins wondering what happened to Constantine, the maid who lovingly raised her; and as both Aibileen and Minny become increasingly privy to the secrets of their employers’ households.
Though “The Help” might well have veered off into violent repression of these maids’ outspokenness (one character is blinded for having accidentally used a whites-only bathroom), Ms. Stockett doesn’t take it there. She’s interested in the affection and intimacy buried beneath even the most seemingly impersonal household connections.
Aibileen is this book’s loveliest character, especially in scenes that have her raising Mae Mobley, the toddler now in her charge. Having endured the pain of raising white child after white child only to see them grow up and away from her, Aibileen is still ready to embrace another one. On the evidence of Ms. Stockett’s autobiographical afterword, this is the part of the story she knows best; she herself had an absentee white mother and was raised by a black woman named Demetrie. She loved Demetrie dearly without ever giving much thought to what Demetrie’s life was like, and she says that “The Help” was written to fill in that gap.
Mae Mobley’s little games include pretending to stage a sit-in at a Woolworth’s counter and pretending to ride the bus with Rosa Parks. Or so it goes in this ultimately soft-pedaled version of Southern women’s lives, one in which real danger is usually at a distance.
At one point Skeeter hears a strange new guy, Bob Dylan, singing a strange new song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and finds herself full of optimism. Had she heard the same Bob Dylan singing “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” his accusatory song about the fatal caning of a 51-year-old black barmaid by a young white patrician, “The Help” might have ventured outside its harsh yet still comfortable, reader-friendly world.