26 September, 2022

Kathryn Stockett's THE HELP: The Past Sheds Light On The Present

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.  Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.  –Robert F. Kennedy
History does not merely occur on a grand scale which then is later analyzed and memorialized for future generations.  History happens when all lives are swept up by local, national or global events on a grand scale. Individuals make decisions which set larger events in motion.   A century after President Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation, black Americans still did not have the same basic human and civil rights as white Americans.  In the early 1960s individuals had to decide whether or not they would continue to accept  inequality which affected every level of daily living–or to stand strong, and at grave personal risk, and create the changes which would open the way for equality.   The Help by Kathryn Stockett expertly weaves the historical events of the burgeoning civil rights movement with a smaller, infinitely personal story using the setting of Jackson, Mississippi between August 1962 and September 1964.

Three main characters narrate the novel in alternating chapter sets.  The first narrator is Aibileen Clark (52),  a black woman who is one of “the help,” the black women who work as domestics for the white families of Jackson. These women provide their white employers with the highest standards of cleaning, cooking, laundering and, most importantly, child care.  Aibileen and her best friend  (and the second narrator) Minny Jackson (36) work six days a week from 8 am to 4 pm for the grand sum of $43.00 a week.   They earn only 37% of the median household income which, in 1962, was $6,000.

The third narrator is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (23), a recent graduate of “Ole Miss” (University of Mississippi).   Skeeter is single, without matrimonial prospects, and still lives at home with her parents Charlotte and Carlton on the family’s cotton plantation outside of the town of Jackson.  Skeeter was loved and raised by Constantine, the Phelan’s “help.”   Skeeter, while naive, is untainted by racism.

I was raised by a colored woman.  I’ve seen how simple it can be and–and how complex it can be between the families and the help.
Skeeter is very different from her social circle, the married white women for whom Aibileen, Minny and the other domestics work. These gals went to Ole Miss to find suitable husbands, get married, and have children.  Without the burden of housework and child care, the white women spend their time gossiping about other white women at their regular bridge games, the country club, or at any of the many events run by The Junior League, which is the focal point of their social lives.  The “Queen Bee” and President of The Jackson Chapter of the Junior League is Miss Hilly Holbrook.  Her main underling is Elizabeth Leefolt, Aibileen’s employer.

Skeeter finds the conventions of her time and her gender stifling. She keeps her dreams of becoming a writer to herself.   Skeeter has, however, sent her resume to a senior editor at Harper & Row, a New York trade book publishing company, in hopes of a life beyond what is expected of her.

10 thoughts on “Kathryn Stockett's THE HELP: The Past Sheds Light On The Present

  1. Can't wait to get to this one. In the mid-50s in Montgomery AL my mother caved under pressure from the neighbors and hired a black maid. Mary was very young, so she sent her out to play with us and did her own housework anyway. Alabama then was creepy. Even a 7-year-old could tell something was very wrong.

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