I’ve been languishing in the heat of Mississippi, wallowing in Southern belles and fried chicken, and feeling shocked at the genteel brutality and racism underneath the fine Southern manners in Jackson.
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is her controversial debut about rich white Southerners and their coloured maids (often referred to as ‘nigras’). Even more controversially, she – a white author raised by a black maid in the south – writes in the voices of the black help and the narrative is driven by their rich accents.
There are three main characters: the two maids Aibileen and Minny, and the young white woman, Skeeter. Each chapter is spoken in the voice of one of these women as we learn of a terrible, closed world of race, discrimination and separation in 1962 Mississippi.
“Mississippi and the world is two very different places,” the Deacon say and we all nod cause ain’t it the truth.
The real stars of the book are those hard-working, often abused, unseen women: the maids – as characterized by calm maternal Aibileen and hot-tempered Minny. Skeeter gradually gets drawn into their world as she decides to write about the way the help is treated.
The friendship between these three women crosses the boundaries of the racial laws of the time – and it also puts them into danger as few people would tolerate, much less understand, it.
At times, it reads like a chick-lit page-turner; at other times, it is funny and shocking. Much has been written of the deep South in the 1960s, but this book focuses on the women of the time and on the female aspect. The white females come off looking the worse for wear – and it is the unsung songs of the ordinary maids that really shine.
The whole point of the book? In Stockett’s words, “We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”
And that is something worth remembering every day.