In the Afterword to The Help, Kathryn Stockett acknowledges the magnitude of what she took on in the project. After all, it takes audacity for a white woman to presume to depict the lives of black maids in Mississippi in 1963, and even more nerve for her to write in their own voices. I was put off by this at first. I’m glad that the cliché of the Wise Black Woman exists (at least it’s positive), but it’s still a cliché. Yet I quickly became very attached to Aibileen and Minny, the two maids who share narration of the book with Eugenia Phelan, a misfit white woman of 23. Eugenia, tall and rebellious, nevertheless still lives under her mother’s thumb and anxiously tries to fit into the mold prescribed for upper-middle-class white girls in Jackson. But her sensitivity and her own sense of alienation from her surroundings alert her to the entrenched injustice around her. As an aspiring writer, she decides to try to write a book from the point of view of the maids.
One of the best things Stockett does is describe the mistrust and awkwardness as Miss Skeeter (Eugenia’s unfortunate nickname), Aibileen and Minny cooperate on a project that threatens all of them. The maids stand in danger of losing their livelihood but Skeeter is seen as a traitor and is politely frozen out of her social circle. At the same time, honest friendship grows between her and Aibileen. Yet it’s a friendship that’s severely circumscribed by their situation.
The book’s a tiny bit sentimental but it’s hard to know how Stockett could have avoided that, since one of the crucial relationships in the book is Aibileen’s with her charge, little Mae Mobley Leefolt, aged 3. There’s a great deal of affection and commitment between the maids and their white “families.” It exists in a kind of mosaic, side by side with resentment and bittterness. And if the character of Skeeter is familiar (the homely bookish female; see Virginia Woolf etc. etc.), Aibileen and Minny are less so, and wonderful. Minny’s mouthiness and volcanic anger is a good counterpart to Aibileen’s warmth. In the end, it was spending time with these two that made The Help a pleasure.