A synopsis seems hardly necessary given the hype that this novel’s enjoyed over the last year. Kathryn Stockett’s look at life in 60s Mississippi hasn’t just hopped on a nostalgia bandwagon, it’s taken up all the seats and is now trying out its ringtones and sticking gum to the seats. Mad Men, Pan Am, Marilyn, chintz, tea parties and small-town gossip are all very in, and The Help has a lot to thank them for.
Skeeter is a 22-year-old girl back from college in her home town of Jackson, Mississippi, aspiring to greatness as a writer, but struggling to find something in her life to write about. And however great her writing, in the eyes of the town (and her mother) she won’t have achieved anything until she’s found a husband. Her beloved childhood maid, Constantine, has disappeared without a word, and any enquiries are met with a stony silence. Curiosity about the black community in this town is an improper pastime for a young white lady, but when an editor suggests this is just the kind of thing that Skeeter ought to be writing about, she takes the plunge and starts delving a little deeper.
Aibileen, the maid working for Skeeter’s best friend, would be the perfect subject if only Skeeter could get her to talk. Raising her 17th child but never quite getting over the loss of her own, she is responsible for white women’s children but not trusted not to steal the silver. Her relationship with the too-cute Mae Mobley is so highly-charged and important to her that it’s bound to end in disaster. Meanwhile, her hot-tempered friend Minnie has just made an enemy of the local DAR behemoth Hilly Holbrook, and is only able to find a job with a newcomer from out of town who doesn’t seem to understand the rules about what the help can and can’t know about their employers.
I’ve read a lot of scathing reviews on Goodreads, and a lot of gushing ones. Personally, I couldn’t work myself up to either of those extremes, although I definitely enjoyed it. Criticism, where is is levelled, seems to be largely thanks to the point made deftly by this poster:
If you have a white writer with a white female protagonist providing the vehicle for black women’s voices, this is always going to be problematic – particularly when the plot’s ‘happy ending’ can be said really only to happen to Skeeter as a result. Sharing the narration between Skeeter, Aibileen and Minnie attempts to alleviate this, but then it runs risk of being accused of ventriloquising black women’s voices – something that Kathryn Stockett herself defends against in her epilogue.
I didn’t have a problem with the voices, necessarily – I think however fraught such an enterprise is, empathy and engagement with stories and experiences outside of your own is to be encouraged – although I did think it sounded in some parts like a bit of a Toni Morrison pastiche. Now, Toni Morrison’s great, so I guess even that’s not such a terrible thing in and of itself. But I guess it sums up the trouble with this book (if trouble it is), which is that it isn’t meant to be a ground-breaking, earth-shattering, world-turning kind of a novel. It is a feel-good movie of a novel. That’s why you have the Cruella deVille style Hillie as a real baddie, so that you can get your kicks as she has various comedy comeuppances inflicted upon her, while not worrying too much about the more insidious forms of racism. Like the woman who makes her maid cover her hair and always counts the silver when she’s done for the day, but who the maid recounts with a fond smile because she wrote a note saying ‘Thank you’.
Callie takes off her black-rimmed glasses, wipes her eyes. “If any white lady reads my story, that’s what I want them to know. Saying thank you, when you really mean it, when you remember what someone done for you … it’s so good.”
Great, let’s call that entrenched racism bygones then, eh? Once you start down this road of picking ideological holes in the book, it becomes a bit like the white housewives featured in Skeeter’s book who congratulate her on it – they don’t seem to recognise their own hypocrisy.
There is something uncomfortable in the way in which we all get a bit rosy-eyed for the good old 60s in it. But equally, I think you can cheer along with the triumphs of these people, and Stockett has created some loveable characters, as well as some great baddies, and it does great at this boo-hissing at racism. It just doesn’t quite complicate the issue beyond that – at least not on purpose. But what it does do is provide a ripping yarn and a vivid, if romanticised, picture of Mississippi in the 60s that is immersing, entertaining, but then relatively shelveable.