Over five years, the manuscript for Kathryn Stockett’s first novel was rejected by about sixty literary agents, all of whom are surely kicking themselves now. Since being published in February 2009, The Help has spent more than one hundred weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and the movie version is due out this August. The novel draws on the author’s experiences growing up as a member of a privileged white family in Jackson, Mississippi. Because her parents divorced when she was six and her mother frequently traveled, Stockett spent a good deal of time with their family maid, a black woman named Demetrie. She later attended the University of Alabama, and graduated with a degree in English and creative writing and then moved to New York City, where she worked for nine years in magazine publishing and marketing.
The Help is the story of three remarkable women: two middle-aged, black domestic workers named Aibileen and Minny and a twenty-two-year-old white woman named Skeeter Phelan. Aibileen is a gentle, motherly woman who loves the white children she works to raise. Her only son was killed at the age of twenty-four in a work-related accident, and Aibileen pours the love she would have shown him into the relationships she has with the white children she takes care of. Minny is Aibileen’s best friend, but she has a very different temperament. While Aibileen is calm and tender, Minny is angry and feisty. She loses a lot of jobs because she cannot learn to hold her tongue in the presence of her white employers. The third remarkable woman in this story, Skeeter Phelan, is white and wealthy, and she dreams of being a writer in New York City (not unlike author Kathryn Stockett). Even though she is white and privileged, Skeeter is, in a way, an outsider. She’s unmarried at a time when the expectation for a rich, young white woman is simply to find the proper husband. She’s physically not very attractive: frizzy-haired, pale, tall, and lanky. Skeeter is also an outsider because she’s unwilling to accept the prevailing racist views of many in the South in the early 1960s.
The story, set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, begins in the voice of Aibileen, currently employed by Miss Elizabeth Leefolt to care for her daughter Mae Mobley.
Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.
But I ain’t never seen a baby yell like Mae Mobley Leefolt. First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic, fighting that bottle like it’s a rotten turnip. Miss Leefolt, she look terrified a her own child. (1)
Aibileen rescues Mae Mobley, in that moment as well as in many others throughout the book when her mother cannot seem to love her. To make up for the affection Mae Mobley does not receive from her mother, Aibileen never misses a chance to tell the little girl, “You a smart girl. You a kind girl, Mae Mobley.”
The thick dialect with which Aibileen and all the black characters in the book speak has been a point of controversy regarding The Help. Some critics have pointed out that Stockett conveys only black voices in dialect, while the white characters in the book are “free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have” (Erin Aubrey Kaplan in Ms. Magazine, 8 February 2009). In an interview with Time, Stockett was asked, “Did you worry about the implications of being a young, white author writing in the thick dialect of African Americans?” She replied, “I’m still worried about that.... The truth is that I didn’t think anybody was going to read it. Had I known it was going to be so widely disseminated, I probably wouldn’t have written it in the type of language that I did” (11 November 2009).
The main plot line in the story concerns Skeeter’s desire to write a book about the experiences of black domestic workers in the segregated South. A Senior Editor from Harper and Row, stunned by Skeeter’s boldness in applying—right out of college—for an editor’s position with the publishing company, writes Skeeter a note with these words of encouragement: “go to your local newspaper and get an entry-level job.... When you’re not making mimeographs or fixing your boss’s coffee, look around, investigate, and write. Don’t waste your time on the obvious things. Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else” (71). She also offers to look over her best work and give her an honest opinion.
Skeeter tells the editor that a black maid has agreed to tell her story about what it’s like to work for the well-to-do white women of Jackson (105). Of course, no one actually has agreed to tell any such story. Imagine the danger in exposing the dirty secrets of white employers in the explosive, racially-segregated South of the early 1960s. But Skeeter hopes that Aibileen will take the risk. At first, Aibileen wants no part of this crazy, dangerous plan, but she eventually changes her mind. When Skeeter asks her why, Aibileen says, “Miss Hilly.” Hilly is the villain of the novel, an ignorant, racist woman, and one with a lot of power in Jackson. Her latest project is the “Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” which would require every prominent white home to have a separate bathroom for the black help (9). Aibileen’s employer constructs a separate bathroom for her in the corner of the garage. When Aibileen is told to use only her bathroom in the garage from now on, she describes “feel(ing) that bitter seed grow in my chest” (29). When she can no longer tolerate the daily insults of her life, Aibileen agrees to tell Skeeter her story.
She starts by describing her first job, at age thirteen, cleaning the silver in the governor’s mansion. On her first morning, she made a mistake filling in the chart they used to make sure servants weren’t stealing the silverware. “I come home that morning, after I been fired, and stood outside my house with my new work shoes on. The shoes my mama paid a month’s worth a light bill for. I guess that’s when I understood what shame was and the color of it too. Shame ain’t black, like dirt, like I always thought it was. Shame be the color of a new white uniform your mother ironed all night to pay for, white without a smudge or a speck a work-dirt on it” (150–151).
Eventually, Aibileen convinces Minny to share her story, too. But to be able to send the New York editor a complete manuscript of interviews, Skeeter and Aibileen need to convince many more black women to take the significant risk of speaking out. Two key events make this possible. The first is the shooting death of Medgar Evers (194). Although the novel is set in the Deep South at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Evers’s assassination is the only Civil Rights event that Stockett spends significant time describing. She makes only brief reference to other events, as if she is abiding by the prevailing sentiment of the segregated South that said to the world, these are private matters about which we’d rather not speak. At one point Skeeter and her family’s maid are watching television together, listening to a newscast about James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi. At that moment, Skeeter’s mother enters the room and says, “‘Turn that set off right this minute!... It is not appropriate for the two of you to watch together,’ and she flips the channel, [stopping] on an afternoon rerun of Lawrence Welk. ‘Look, isn’t this so much nicer?’” (83).
But Medgar Evers’s murder factors prominently in Stockett’s story line. At the age of thirty-seven, Evers was gunned down outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi, in June 1963. A prominent civil rights activist and field secretary for the NAACP, he and his family had been the targets of numerous threats and violent acts before his murder. One biographer writes, “In some ways, the death of Medgar Evers was a milestone in the hard-fought integration war that rocked America in the 1950s and 1960s. While the assassination of such a prominent black figure foreshadowed the violence to come, it also spurred other civil rights leaders... to new fervor. They, in turn, were able to infuse their followers—both black and white—with a new and expanded sense of purpose, one that replaced apprehension with anger. Esquire contributor Maryanne Vollers wrote: ‘People who lived through those days will tell you that something shifted in their hearts after Medgar Evers died, something that put them beyond fear.... At that point a new motto was born: After Medgar, no more fear.’” (Contemporary Black Biography. Gale Publishing, 1992: 62). This is precisely the transforming effect that Evers’s death has on the characters in Stockett’s story, who are emboldened by the assassination and by their own grief at his death.
The second significant galvanizing force that propels the women to help Skeeter is the arrest and incarceration of a black maid, Yule Mae, for stealing from her employer. Yule has twin boys who are smart and eager for an education. She and her husband have worked as hard as they can to save enough money to send both boys to college, but they have come up about $75 short. Yule Mae asks her employer for a loan, but her employer (Miss Hilly) replies, “…a true Christian [doesn’t] give charity to those who [are] well and able.” Yule Mae asks, “how do you choose which of your twin sons should go to college and which should take a job spreading tar? How do you tell one that you love him just as much as the other, but you’ve decided he won’t be the one to a get a chance in life? You don’t. You find a way to make it happen. Any way at all” (249). So Yule Mae steals an ugly ruby ring from her employer, and she prays that it’s worth $75. Her incarceration became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Suddenly, the black domestic workers of Jackson are lining up to tell their stories to Skeeter.
Stockett does a marvelous job of presenting the racial tensions of the time in such a way that readers feel their full force, yet are not so overwhelmed that they want to put the book down. She presents the realities of the racially-divided South in a remarkably hopeful way. Readers will cheer the bravery and courage of the women who finally say, we will no longer quietly endure the constant insults of this racially divided society. The seemingly powerless and poor black women come together to claim their true power—a power that they have had all along—to expose the lives of those who oppress them. Stockett also invites us to consider the role of women in the Civil Rights movement, to listen to the movement’s feminine voices, which we don’t typically hear.
In the telling of these stories, though, we learn more than the white employers’ dirty little secrets. We see the full complexity of the relationships between the domestic workers and the families they serve, the surprising “dichotomy of love and disdain living side-by-side” (258). “The help” are told that they cannot eat at the same table or off of the same dishes as the whites in the home. They cannot use the same toilets. And yet, these are the same women to whom the children of the house are entrusted. They are the ones who feed and potty train and nurture the children. There is mutual love between them. They offer the children acceptance—the kind of acceptance that is often absent in their relationships with their mothers. And yet, given the constraints of the social context in which they live, many of the children eventually lose their color-blindness. When the grown children marry, most invite their childhood maids to the wedding, but the maids can attend only if they are in uniform, reminding everyone of their servant’s role.
For all its power, many readers of The Help are left with gnawing questions about who is entitled to tell the stories of the black maids. Skeeter seems genuine in her desire to use her manuscript as part of the struggle to achieve social change and racial equality. And she pays the maids who share their stories with her, so we’re less concerned than we might be that Skeeter is exploiting others for financial gain. Yet, at one point, a young maid accuses Skeeter of being just “another white lady trying to make a dollar off of colored people.” It’s worth noting that the original idea to write about the lives of blacks in Jackson belonged to Aibileen’s son, and Skeeter knows that.
The parallels between the character of Skeeter and author Kathryn Stockett are unmistakable, and they lead us to ask whether this story of “the help” is truly Stockett’s to tell. To what extent is it fair for her to presume to speak for “the help” in her telling of this story? In an interview, Stockett said, “Some readers tell me, ‘We always treated our maid like she was a member of the family.’ You know, that’s interesting, but I wonder what your maid’s perspective was on that.” (Time, 11 November 2009). Yet, clearly what Stockett is offering us isn’t the maid’s perspective, but a privileged white person’s interpretation of the black maid’s perspective.
Perhaps we can forgive Stockett’s boldness in presuming to speak for “the help” when we understand just a bit about her motivations. At the end of the novel, Stockett offers this simple but poignant note of thanks to the black woman who raised her and her siblings: “Finally, my belated thanks to Demetrie McLorn, who carried us all out of the hospital wrapped in our baby blankets and spent her life feeding us, picking up after us, loving us, and, thank God, forgiving us” (445). It’s clear that Kathryn Stockett intends this book to be both tribute and apology to Demetrie. Stockett writes: “I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine. I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question. She died when I was sixteen. I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book” (451).
Kathryn Stockett is currently working on her second novel, also set in Mississippi, this time during the Great Depression. It’s a safe bet she won’t have to shop this one around to sixty literary agents before she finds a publisher.
Dawn Jeglum Bartusch is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Valparaiso University.