If you took GCSE English then chances are you’ve read a Mildred D Taylor novel. My sister and I were ahead of the curve. I read everything she read and since our Nigerian parents restricted our movements to school, Safeway and the local library, I’d read everything Taylor had published long before I stepped foot in secondary school.
It was in her books I first heard of segregation. It took me a while to make the connection and understand that parallel to the dirt-poor Waltons who lived on Waltons’ Mountain and whom we watched religiously on a Sunday morning, were black communities languishing under the mass deception of ‘separate but equal.’ Yet while Taylor’s narratives engaged me, it was her authorial voice, the musicality of a unique English dialect that enthralled me. She stood on the shoulders of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker in telling stories in that colourful, metaphorical voice intrinsic to the Deep South.
I hadn’t planned on reviewing The Help for this site. A story about African American maids written by a white woman who’d grown up with a black maid just didn’t seem to fit the criteria. Further, it seemed almost insulting for a white author to ‘decide’ to set aside her privileged skin tone and seek to represent the daily life experiences of women who’d spent their lives under the hard fist of racial discrimination. I’d have the same reservations if an Israeli decided to write from the perspective of a Palestinian or a Saudi man decided he could understand life as a Saudi woman.
I borrowed the book from the library and added it to ‘the pile,’ a tower of books that teeter beside my desk. Time passed. I heard a film adaptation was being made and thought, ‘I should get to that book soon.’ More time passed. And then I read a NY Times article about how the ‘alleged’ inspiration for the book, a maid who worked for the author’s brother’s family was suing Kathryn Stockett (the author). It piqued my interest anew and I thought, ‘I’ll just read the first chapter, I’ll probably hate it and that will be that.’
…Stockett’s ability to untangle the nuance of oppression, then flip the script and speak in the voice of the oppressor, kept me reading…
But I didn’t hate it. Stockett can certainly write. And growing up in Mississippi she captures that same rich, expressive voice I first admired in Mildred D Taylor. It was the voice that kept me going past that first chapter. But it was Stockett’s ability to untangle the nuance of oppression and humiliation, then flip the script and speak in the voice of the oppressor, and humanise them too, that kept me reading the entire thing.
It’s the 1960s and Aibileen is a maid and childminder. She’s raising her seventeenth child and dreading that day when her charge realises she’s ‘black’ and therefore inferior. Once this happens she plans to move on. Minny is Sofia from The Colour Purple: large, loud and dangerously outspoken. She is the best cook in her corner of Jackson Mississippi but her defiance has set her at loggerheads with the town’s most powerful woman and something has to give. Skeeter is a white woman; recently returned from college, she’s a writer hungry to make her mark on the world. She doesn’t see anything particularly wrong with the racial set-up in the South but when she decides to write about the lives of Jackson’s black maids she’s forced to open her eyes and really look. The three women cross boundaries and are forced to rely on one another in ways they never would have expected.
What’s great about the book
In a time when black Southerners could be killed for using the wrong bathroom, the risks the maids take to tell their story keeps you on the edge of your seat until the last page.