A Nuanced Novel Of Race In The Deep South

The Help
The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

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hide captionKathryn Stockett says she wasn't nervous about writing from the point of view of a black woman, because she didn't think anyone would read her novel.

Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett says she wasn't nervous about writing from the point of view of a black woman, because she didn't think anyone would read her novel.

If Barack Obama's candidacy did nothing else, it began to pry open the door to a national conversation on race. More than President Clinton's Initiative on Race, Obama's candidacy made us look at what race is, why we continue to be uncomfortable with discussing it (especially among people of different races), and how our vision of who and what is black continues to change.

In his famous speech about race, delivered in Philadelphia in March 2008, Obama told us that we didn't need to go over the sad history of racial inequality in this country — but that we did need to understand that the legacy of past segregation had led to some of the ills that plague today's African-American communities. As he pointed out, the country's unresolved feelings about black America isn't, to quote him quoting Faulkner, "'dead and buried.' In fact, it isn't even past.' "

Which brings us to The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.

As black-white race relations go, this could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird. Told from three different points of view, The Help takes place in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, when the Deep South was beginning its immersion into the civil rights movement.

Stockett masterfully captures both black and white voices with astonishing believability, and all three main characters — renegade debutante Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, and housekeepers Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson — are complex, admirable women.

Skeeter hovers on the periphery of her elite social circle because she cares more about having a career than snagging a husband. Her real goal is to write about both sides of life in segregated Jackson — the frustrated middle-class women who both glory in and are trapped by their prescribed roles of wife and mother, and the black women who have put aside their personal needs and interests in order to make a living by serving them.

Meanwhile, Minny and Aibileen must choose between keeping their silence and remaining employed, or ripping away their employers' smug delusions that they treat their maids "just like family." The black women know they'll be fired (or worse) if they're discovered telling the truth about their working conditions and their employers.

Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny dare to step outside the tight cells of race and class and circumstance that constrain them to begin constructing what eventually will become the foundation of the New South. As they come to know and trust each other, they appreciate the peril each has chosen to face for being brave — or foolish — enough to buck convention to expose themselves and their lives to each other.

In The Help, Stockett has done what Mockingbird's Atticus Finch told his daughter, Scout, to do when he advised, "You never know how another person feels until you walk a mile in his shoes." The author has put us in the shoes of three ordinary women at an extraordinary point in American history. If you read only one book this summer, let this be it.

Excerpt: 'The Help'

Cover: 'The Help'
The Help
By Kathryn Stockett
Hardcover, 464 pages
Putnam/Amy Einhorn
List Price: $24.95

August 1962

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. "What am I doing wrong? Why can't I stop it?"

It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation.

So I took that pink, screaming baby in my arms. Bounced her on my hip to get the gas moving and it didn't take two minutes fore Baby Girl stopped her crying, got to smiling up at me like she do. But Miss Leefolt, she don't pick up her own baby for the rest a the day. I seen plenty a womens get the baby blues after they done birthing. I reckon I thought that's what it was.

Here's something about Miss Leefolt: she not just frowning all the time, she skinny. Her legs is so spindly, she look like she done growed em last week. Twenty-three years old and she lanky as a fourteen-year-old boy. Even her hair is thin, brown, see-through. She try to tease it up, but it only make it look thinner. Her face be the same shape as that red devil on the redhot candy box, pointy chin and all. Fact, her whole body be so full a sharp knobs and corners, it's no wonder she can't soothe that baby. Babies like fat. Like to bury they face up in you armpit and go to sleep. They like big fat legs too. That I know.

By the time she a year old, Mae Mobley following me around everwhere I go. Five o'clock would come round and she'd be hanging on my Dr. Scholl shoe, dragging over the floor, crying like I weren't never coming back. Miss Leefolt, she'd narrow up her eyes at me like I done something wrong, unhitch that crying baby off my foot. I reckon that's the risk you run, letting somebody else raise you chilluns.

Mae Mobley two years old now. She got big brown eyes and honey-color curls. But the bald spot in the back of her hair kind a throw things off. She get the same wrinkle between her eyebrows when she worried, like her mama. They kind a favor except Mae Mobley so fat. She ain't gone be no beauty queen. I think it bother Miss Leefolt, but Mae Mobley my special baby.

I lost my own boy, Treelore, right before I started waiting on Miss Leefolt. He was twenty-four years old. The best part of a person's life. It just wasn't enough time living in this world.

He had him a little apartment over on Foley Street. Seeing a real nice girl name Frances and I spec they was gone get married, but he was slow bout things like that. Not cause he looking for something better, just cause he the thinking kind. Wore big glasses and reading all the time. He even start writing his own book, bout being a colored man living and working in Mississippi. Law, that made me proud. But one night he working late at the Scanlon-Taylor mill, lugging two-by-fours to the truck, splinters slicing all the way through the glove. He too small for that kind a work, too skinny, but he needed the job. He was tired. It was raining. He slip off the loading dock, fell down on the drive. Tractor trailer didn't see him and crushed his lungs fore he could move. By the time I found out, he was dead.

That was the day my whole world went black. Air look black, sun look black. I laid up in bed and stared at the black walls a my house. Minny came ever day to make sure I was still breathing, feed me food to keep me living. Took three months fore I even look out the window, see if the world still there. I was surprise to see the world didn't stop just cause my boy did.

Five months after the funeral, I lifted myself up out a bed. I put on my white uniform and put my little gold cross back around my neck and I went to wait on Miss Leefolt cause she just have her baby girl. But it weren't too long before I seen something in me had changed. A bitter seed was planted inside a me. And I just didn't feel so accepting anymore.

Reprinted from THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett with permission of Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2009 by Kathryn Stockett.

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The Help

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