"The Help" by Kathryn Stockett

by Margie Reins Smith
(Grosse Pointe, MI)

By Margie Reins Smith

A well-known author – I wish I could remember his/her name – advised beginning writers to figuratively march up to a reader, look him in the eye, grab him by the lapels and begin telling the story. A good writer should be able to let go of those metaphoric lapels after a few pages because the reader will drop everything to follow him around, asking: “What happened next?” “And then what?” “And then what happened?”

Kathryn Stockett, a first-time novelist, has gotten the hang of this lapel-grabbing thing.

The Help is the story of three southern women. They all live in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, just as the civil rights movement is stretching and flexing its muscles.

Two of the women, Aibileen and Minny, are maids. Their mothers were maids. Their grandmothers were maids. Their great-grandmothers were slaves.

The third woman, Skeeter, is a newly minted graduate of Ole Miss, a young woman of privilege, class, education and money. Skeeter was raised by a caring, nurturing maid.

Aibileen and Minny, of course, are black. Skeeter is white.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, written and unwritten rules for interaction between an upper-class white woman and her maid was crystal clear. Among those rules:
* The maid follows orders, without question or complaint. “Yes, ma’am,” is her standard response.
* The maid never sits down in the presence of her employer.
* The maid never has a meal at the same table with her employer.
* In fact, the maid has separate dishes and eating utensils which are washed and stored separately.
* The maid has her own bathroom.
* . . . Not to mention her own neighborhood, library, church, schools, retail stores and . . . outlook on life.

Yet these three unlikely co-conspirators get together, in secret, to write a tell-all book about what it’s like to be black, female and unquestionably subservient in the pre-civil rights South.

This is the lapel-grabbing story.

The characters, especially the black women, are wonderfully, carefully, lovingly drawn, with details and dialects and motivations that ring true. The white women are a bit over the top – almost cartoons. Miss Hilly is too cruel and vindictive; Miss Celia is too Dolly Partonish; Skeeter’s mother is too controlling. And Mr. Johnny, given his past history with Miss Hilly, would certainly have figured out why the Junior Leaguers were ignoring his wife.

But the lapel-grabbing story carries them all along, hurtling toward a conclusion that is both satisfying and surprising.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, is a good read. I’d give it three out of four stars.


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