From The Record, August 25th, 2017
Your itinerant reviewer was recently (Tuesday) afforded another opportunity to sit in on a discussion with the Westport (Westport, Nova Scotia, that is!) Public Library’s reading club—The Novel Bunch. As I mentioned in a previous column, Brier Island’s library hosts a monthly book chat under the steady hand and watchful eye of Jacqueline Journeay, Library Clerk III. This month’s selection was The Help: A Novel, by Kathryn Stockett, which was published in 2009 and became a New York Times Best-Seller. Its very successful film version was released in 2011 and won several awards. The discussion in Westport Library was moderated this month by Julia Gaudet and was, as usual, varied and far-ranging, thanks to the eclectic nature of the Novel Bunch.
The setting of the story is the early 1960’s in the United States—Jackson, Mississippi—at the height of racial tensions between the establishment whites and vanguard civil rights activists. The story keys on Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the daughter of a white cotton farmer, who feels a profound dissatisfaction with her social position—with endless rounds of feckless women’s activities (parties, tennis games, meetings of the DAR)—while she awaits the inevitable arrival of a suitor who will marry her and introduce her to the joyful state of motherhood. Instead, she sets her heart upon a career as a writer, and she manages to establish a connection with a Harper & Rowe editor, who promises to at least read her stuff if she manages to find something worth writing about.
Cut to the other two main characters—Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson—whose stories unfold in parallel with Skeeter’s. The main story lines for these characters involve their servitude. The infinitely compassionate Aibileen is employed by Elizabeth Leefolt to do housework and raise her baby daughter Mae Mobley. The hot-headed and outspoken Minnie is employed by Celia Rae Foote to do almost everything, including cooking for her husband and nursing her through various traumas and psychoses.
Skeeter finds something worth writing about. She enlists Aibileen and Minny to assist her in a perilous venture—interviewing and recording the stories of various nannies and housekeepers in Jackson, who will relate the triumphs and also the slights, insults, and humiliations in their working lives, which are not far removed from those of household slaves. This is a dangerous enterprise because in those critical early 60’s anyone who sought to undermine the segregationist status quo faced ostracism, violence, or even death. The infamous murders of Medgar Evars and the three civil rights advocates are only a few of the many examples that provide a background for these times.
Many hold the innocent view that the victory of the North in the American Civil War put an end to the slave question. However, the whites in the south did not relinquish the social structures associated with slavery. Following the phase of reconstruction in the late 1860’s and early 70’s, and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, a fierce rearguard action was initiated by the southern states. Through the adoption of Jim Crow laws and the manipulation of the political system the Southern Democrats essentially reconstructed a form of slavery through segregation. And, even though the blacks were nominally free, they were separated from all the things associated with freedom—access to good libraries, schools, restaurants, hotels—and through an elaborate conspiracy of voter registration restrictions and intimidation they were deprived of the vote.
One hundred years later, the Civil Rights movement was a testament to this continuing blight of inequality.
Skeeter Phelan manages to enlist the about 12 different nannies who will attest to their experiences. She is careful to conceal the names of originators of the stories, but the truth threatens to come out, with dire reprisals the likely consequences.
There are many features of the novel that will appeal. It is told from the perspectives of the three main characters, Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. Stockett makes a not-always-successful effort to suit the narrative idiom of each character with their education and background. So one finds Aibileen communicating sometimes in very rough, southern Black Vernacular English and sometimes in more polished language. The device works, however, as one comes to associate the language with the particular narrative thread.
There is also the interesting post-modern aspect—it is the first book of an aspiring white writer (Stockett) who uses her personal experience with her nanny, and one employed by her brother, to write about an aspiring writer working on her first book using the first-hand account of nannies and caregivers.
Another questionable aspect, however, is the over-simplified nature of the moral contrasts. It seems at a certain point that the black housekeepers (still clearly an oppressed and submissive class in the early 1960’s) are being molded into a perfect embodiment of political correctness. It seems at times that the polemical aspects of the book erode the realism and plausibility of the story.
One of the great strengths of the story is the tension that it generates, and usually this tension has to do with being found out. The novel thus takes a place of honour in the long tradition of oppressed black lives being given voices. From the very beginning of slavery, those who have insisted upon slavery have relied on thought control, stifling any discussion or sentiment which might chip away at the segregationist structure. And the white establishment has always striven to keep the blacks illiterate and incapable of articulating their discontent.
With regards to The Help, the Lennoxville Library has a grand slam—the book, the audio book, and the film. Happy reading!!!
BOOK SALE! Tomorrow (Saturday) is the DAY! From 10:00-3:00 the Library will be holding its annual Street Festival book sale… Great deals to be had on quality books (English and Fench) of all types and genres. In addition this year we will be raffling a painting Helene Breault Mayhew and an immaculate set of Jane Austen’s works!