I capped off the year with Kathryn Stockett's The Help (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009). For those who've missed the hype, this debut novel set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s tackles the complicated, often contradictory relationships between upper middle class white women and their black maids. Explains the dust jacket:
"Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step. ...
"Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
"Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
"Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
"Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed."
The clandestine project, Skeeter's brainchild, is a book of interviews with black women, reflecting on their experiences as white women's maids in their own words. Sure, it sounds like a great way to establish herself as a writer, and it certainly has more "punch" than the "flat, passionless subjects [such] as drunk driving and illiteracy" she initially considers. The trouble is, this is Mississippi in 1962, and her proposed subjects aren't exactly lining up at the door to be interviewed. As New York editor and one-time Atlantan Elaine Stein advises Skeeter,
"'It's certainly ... original, but it won't work. What maid in her right mind would ever tell you the truth? ... [T]his Negro actually agreed to talk to you candidly? About working for a white family? Because that seems like a hell of a risk in a place like Jackson, Mississippi. ... I watched them try to integrate your bus station on the news,' Missus Stein continued. 'They jammed fifty-three Negroes in a jail cell built for four. ... [Y]ou reall think other maids will talk to you? What if the employers find out? ... A little dangerous?' She laughed. 'The marches in Birmingham, Martin Luther King. Dogs attacking colored children. Darling, it's the hottest topic in the nation. But, I'm sorry, this will never work.'"Naturally, Skeeter decides to give it a go anyway. After all, the only other vaguely journalistic gig she can get is ghost-writing Miss Myrna's Hints from Heloise-like column in her local newspaper. (The irony isn't lost on Skeeter's mother, who despairs of Skeeter ever finding a husband and home of her own, or on Skeeter herself, who's never cleaned house and has to not-so-secretly ask her friend Elizabeth's maid Aibileen to help her with most of the questions.) Not surprisingly, especially if you've read the dust jacket, Aibileen and, ultimately, Minny, eventually throw caution to the winds and get on board.
The book is narrated alternately by these three women, and frankly, Skeeter's story struck me as the least compelling of the lot. The first chapter is Aibileen's, and she establishes herself from the start as both a wise, verging-on-stereotypical, old family retainer and someone who's got far more going on beneath the surface than she lets on:
"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.Just what's beneath the surface comes out gradually, in this and subsequent chapters. As the dust jacket indicates, her only child, Treelore, was killed in a work accident -- and it's suggested, though never stated outright, that if he'd been white, he might have received better care and lived. Aibileen also writes, rather than speaks, her prayers every night, and has somewhat of a reputation for prayers that work. As Minny tells it,
"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."
"'Rumor is you got some kind a power prayer, gets better results than just the regular variety. ... Eudora Green, when she broke her hip, went on your list, up walking in a week. Isaiah fell off the cotton truck, on your prayer list that night, back to work the next day. ... Lolly Jackson -- heck, Lolly go on your list and two days later she pop up from her wheelchair like she touched Jesus. Everybody in Hinds County know about that one. ... Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa. She know your prayer works. ... They just think you got a better connection than most. We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear.'"And then there's Minny, who, as the book begins, gets fired yet again by her employer's daughter (and one of Skeeter's best friends), Hilly. OK, technically, she's "let go" because Hilly is moving her mother into a nursing home, with only a week's notice ... but after a farewell incident involving a "Terrible Awful Thing" and a pie (we don't get the details till the very end, but my initial suspicions were confirmed), Hilly tells everyone in town that Minny is a thief (she isn't), and -- surprise, surprise -- no one will hire her. No one, that is, except Miss Celia Rae Foote, fresh off the turnip truck from Sugar Ditch (which Minny describes as "as low as you can go in Mississippi, maybe the whole United States"), married to Hilly's one-time boyfriend Johnny, and now shunned by everyone in the Jackson Ladies' League. Celia's never hired a maid before, and doesn't quite know How It's Done. She insists on paying twice Missus Walter's wages, has to be prompted to set Minny's hours ... and oddest of all, doesn't want to tell Johnny that she's hired a maid. Minny takes the job anyway, but she can't help wondering just what's up with her new employer:
"Every day, Miss Celia looks like she just can't believe I've come back to work. I'm the only thing that interrupts all that quiet around her. ... Miss Celia never does any entertaining, so we just fix whatever she and Mister Johnny are having for supper ... When the lesson's over, she rushes back to laying down. In fact, the only time Miss Celia walks ten feet is to come in the kitchen for her lesson or to sneak upstairs every two or three days, up in the creepy rooms.Against this backdrop, Hilly (who, frankly, is Evil ... if a better mother than the hapless, easily suggestible Elizabeth) puts forth her Home Help Sanitation Initiative, a proposed law to require every white home to have a separate bathroom for it's domestic employees. A member of Aibileen and Minny's church is badly beaten for mistakenly using the white folks' restroom. Yes, this is a world where white people think nothing of letting black maids raise their children, but wouldn't dream of sharing their bathrooms. Explains Hilly, "'It's just plain dangerous. Everybody knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do.'"
"I don't know what she does for five minutes on the second floor. I don't like it up there though. Those bedrooms should be stacked full of kids laughing and hollering and pooping up the place. But it's none of my business what Miss Celia does with her day, and ask me, I'm glad she's staying out of my way. I've followed ladies around with a broom in one hand and a trash can in the other trying to keep up with their mess. As long as she stays in that bed, then I've got a job. Even though she has zero kids and nothing to do all day, she is the laziest woman I've ever seen. ...
"And it's not just the bed. Miss Celia won't leave the house except to get her hair frosted and her ends trimmed. So far, that's only happened once in the three weeks I've been working. Thirty-six years old and I can still hear my mama telling me, It ain't nobody's business. But I want to know what that lady's so scared of outside this place."
Most of the plot lines are ones you'd see coming quite a ways off: Will Skeeter's book be a success? What will become of her romance with Stuart Whitworth, cousin to Hilly's husband, and son of a pro-segregation senator? Why on earth is she still keeping company with Hilly and Elizabeth, anyway? Will Minny (or anyone else) ever find out what Celia's deep, dark secret is? And what sort of disaster waits if the secret book project ever leaks out? All in all, though, it's an entertaining (if somewhat predictable) vacation read.