Reading books on the bestseller lists is not something I habitually do, as you know. If I do dabble in such lowbrow reading material, I only do so at least a year after the initial hype has subsided to prevent the impression being given to others that I jump on literary bandwagons. The Help became big news when the film came out last year. I was living in New York at the time, and remember reading about it in every publication I came across. In Barnes and Noble they had massive displays of the book, and every other person on the subway was clutching a copy. As I am not a snob about films in any way, shape or form (one of my most shame inducing favourites is The Mummy Returns – which is genuinely amazing, by the way), I had no problem with watching the film on opening night, and loved every minute of it. I thought the characters were wonderful, and the exploration of racism, prejudice and courage sensitive and thought provoking. I still didn’t feel that bothered about reading the book, though. It was only when I started teaching To Kill a Mockingbird that I remembered it, and thought it would probably be a useful point of comparison for my students, many of whom have seen the film and would be able to relate the setting to the time in which Harper Lee was writing. As such, I picked it up last week, little expecting that I’d find myself sitting up until the early hours for several nights, unable to put it down. I have to admit – it’s very good!
The story is told from the point of view of three inhabitants of 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. Aibileen and Minny are black maids, working as cooks, cleaners and nannies on barely minimum wage for white middle class women. Skeeter is a jobless twentysomething graduate, back living on her parents’ cotton plantation just outside of the city and desperate to break into journalism. When she hits on the idea of compiling a book of oral stories from maids telling of the realities of working for white women, she has no idea what a can of worms she will open. Her friends, notably the society hostess Hilly Holbrook, and her faithful sidekick Elizabeth Leefolt, will turn against her, horrified at her rejection of the morals of polite society and support of the Civil Rights movement. As racially motivated violence increases in the run up to the March on Washington, Minny and Aibileen are terrified of being found out and punished for their involvement with Skeeter. It is a risky business, attempting to expose the evils of a world that doesn’t understand that it is wrong. While Skeeter’s initial motivation is less humanitarian and more self promotion, the more she has her eyes opened to the experiences of the maids she talks to, the more she realises that she has to make a stand and fight to ensure these women’s voices are heard.
What’s interesting and unexpected about The Help is that, unlike the film’s rather simplistic narrative, the book is not just about race. Instead it is an intriguing, wide ranging look at life in the South during the 1960s, from bridge parties and church services to lynchings and post natal depression. In many ways, it is just as much about the oppression of women as it is about racism; this was the era of The Feminine Mystique, after all. The suffering of women in Jackson is colour blind. Minny is beaten by her husband physically, while Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth is emotionally bullied by hers on a daily basis. Lou Ann, another of Skeeter’s friends, hides the signs of her depression at being stuck in a house with small children all day under long sleeves, while Hilly Holbrook’s outlet for her frustration at her wasted talents is in bullying mercilessly the other women of Jackson into supporting her bid for social supremacy. Aibileen’s grief at losing her son to a racist mob is no less than Minny’s employer Celia’s grief at miscarrying five babies and being unable to have any more. Skeeter’s book doesn’t just give Aibileen and Minny and their friends a passport to freedom, it gives her one too. It means she can get out of Jackson, away from the limited roles women were expected to perform, and pursue her dreams of a career in a big city. The world is starting to open up and prejudices of all natures are beginning to be challenged, and by the end of the novel, it is clear that change is coming for everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin.
The Help is thoughtfully and skillfully written, managing to capture authentically the voices of three very different women and their experiences. While it could have become a trite and simplistic dichotomy of white v black, it is actually a far more complex and intelligent exploration of the many types of oppression and prejudice we live under, and raises plenty of questions about our assumptions and attitudes as a society. I wonder why everyone who reads the novel seizes on the characters’ race rather than their gender; it is primarily a female book, after all, telling women’s stories; take race out of the equation and you would still have a fascinating portrayal of women’s roles in 1960’s America and how limited they were. Minny and Aibileen can only get work as maids; Skeeter can only get work writing about maids. None are doing what they truly want to; no woman in the novel is truly happy. In its essence, I think that The Help is about fighting for your own personal freedom; about having the courage to stand up for yourself and for your convictions, and being strong enough to do whatever it takes to find your own happiness in life. It’s very American in that sense, but sometimes I like a bit of American cheese to warm my heart! It educated and inspired me, as well as entertained me, which certainly makes it a cut above the average bestseller. I highly recommend it, and if you need any more encouragement, my students loved it too!