A White woman in the deep South when Jim Crow is rampant interviews Black maids in order to compile a book that will bring the maids’ stories to the attention of the larger world. This sounds like a noble goal.
BUT, in this novel, in spite of its purported high minded purpose, the White woman is self-centered, dishonest, and risks nothing she cares about while the Black women she pulls into her project risk everything.
The proof is in the pudding: when the book about the maids’ lives is finally published, making life dangerous for everyone in Jackson who had a hand in it, the White woman who organized the project skips off for the new publishing job the book has won for her in New York! While the maids are left in Jackson with their safety compromised and — reality’s sharp edge — living within blocks of Medgar Evers’ recent assassination. A few $100’s may or may not be coming their way.
Stockett sets the novel in Jackson, Mississippi in the early ’60’s when the Civil Rights movement is in its early years, and racial tensions are high. Skeeter, the narrator, is an upper class White woman who just graduated from college and wants to be a writer, though her conventional mother just wants her to get married. Encouraged by a note of interest she’s gotten from an editor in New York City whom she asked for a job, Skeeter interviews the local Black maids for a book that will tell their stories to the world at large.
The Help, consists of the maids’ accounts of their lives, seen through Skeeter’s eyes, with the quest to publish the book against all obstacles the overall narrative arc. Black maids raise the White women’s children, cook their food and clean their houses while Whites, to avoid the maids’ germs, build them separate bathrooms outside the house. There are horrific accounts of Blacks losing their jobs and being beaten and maimed by arbitrary actions of Whites driven by hate and fear. The setting of the story a few blocks from Evers’ murder underlines the true risk the maids take on for agreeing to speak into Skeeter’s recorder, or even for allowing themselves to be seen talking with her in other than a mistress/servant relationship.
Stockett gives lots of details about her characters’ lives but oversimplifies their personalities. The Black maids are noble, generous of spirit and well read, for example, while the White mistresses are all venial, sadistic and pathetic.
But the major flaw in the novel is that Skeeter’s actions are at odds with the halo the author provides for her. Skeeter, as we see her dragging these stories out of these fearful and understandably reluctant women, is self-centered and duplicitous. Her dishonesty is presented as a necessary evil, to get the maids’ stories written and out into the world in the embattled, repressive context of Jackson. But I wouldn’t trust her, nor should the maids. She sounds high-minded but she exploits them as much as the other White women do.
There’s interesting material in the book, like about those bathrooms, and parts of it read like good gossip. But the scraps of inside stuff don’t make up for the fact that the book is as duplicitous and exploitive as its narrator. A White woman gets Black women to talk about themselves under the guise of “doing good” and publishes a book about it that advances her career and leaves them in the lurch. How distasteful. (Yes, I know it’s a bestseller).