10 July 2011
In the two years since it was first published this novel, based on the experiences of black housemaids in 1960s Mississippi, has become a must-read. So I need to get my prejudices out of the way quickly. As soon as I started reading I thought of To Kill a Mockingbird, that early attempt by a white writer to show solidarity with the Civil Rights movement. It was published in 1961, the movement was already under way but, I guess, in need of whatever help it could get from sympathetic whites. Harper Lee set her novel a quarter-century in the past, when lynchings were commonplace and a black man would get no justice in a white court, whatever the evidence in his favour. Ok.
So what’s Kathryn Stockett’s agenda? What’s she doing rewinding history a whole half-century? This white author was born in 1969, by which time the movement was well established – Martin Luther King had already been dead a year – so she rewinds a little further, to 1962. What could be a better time to set a novel based on black experiences? ‘Miss Parks’ is mentioned within the first chapter or two, but her small victory over who is allowed to sit where on the buses seems almost pitiful as Stockett begins to take us through the battles that have only just begun. As though on cue, a few chapters later, the upheavals brought about by the first black man to attend university in Mississippi are on the tv news . And a likeable, hard-working young black man one of the characters knows is savagely beaten and left blinded. (I’ll get back to why later, because Stockett fits it seamlessly into an issue that is a running sore throughout these first chapters.)
Then there is the voice that this white writer has created for the first of the two black narrators we encounter. Aibileen’s is a black Mississippi dialect – not entirely without education, as she is proud to tell us, but with a grammar that is far from Standard English. She is still grieving over the death of her son, whom she encouraged to widen his vocabulary – but Aibileen herself is prone to malapropisms like ‘cadillac’ for cardiac and ‘pneumonia’ for ammonia. Ok, again. Or is it ok? There’s no law against aiming to capture other voices, and Stockett often allows Aibileen a keen ability to comment on what she sees, and no-nonsense linguistic short cuts (I remember a former charge is ‘one a my used-to-be babies’). None of these things stops me finding it almost unbearably patronising.
Anyway. Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, which is where the novel is set. And she was brought up by the family’s black maid, just like Mae Mobley, the little girl we meet in Chapter 1…. So the début novelist is writing about what she knows. Up to a point. She knows about the white experience and, even though there are some highly believable opinions spoken by her two black narrators – Minny is the other one – I’m more convinced by the voice of ‘Miss Skeeter’. She is the white 20-something college-educated English major, also brought up by a black maid – and still missing her after discovering that she has mysteriously left her family’s employment when she returns home after her final year at college. I’ll come back to Miss Skeeter…
…because the novel is really focused on the black ‘help’. Before we reach the end of Chapter 1 we understand the irony of the title: the black maids don’t ‘help’ anybody, because they do everything. From bringing up the children – Aibileen, if we are to believe her, is the only real mother that Mae Mobley can look to – to preparing the whole of the Thanksgiving dinner, from polishing the silver to cooking every last bit of it. Aibileen’s version – and we don’t know for sure how true it is – is all a bit one-note, a bit, so to speak, black and white. Except for ‘Miss Skeeter’, the white women are all vile – the latest project is to get the ‘help’ their own segregated toilets – and the black women are, well, if not saintly then at least tirelessly tolerant of the white women’s everyday tyrannies. It’s another problem for me. Stockett might be writing about what she knows – but I know it too, and I don’t even live on the same side of the Atlantic. Everybody knows that the treatment of blacks in 1960s Mississippi was scandalous, and the Apartheid-like treatment of maids in particular isn’t adding greatly to the sum of our knowledge.
It’s a good thing that Stockett has been on the right creative writing courses (I’m guessing, but come on) and knows she needs to add something new to the mix. What we get is the first Minny section, and what is going on has the air of a mystery. Why is the dirt-poor Miss Celia, the one who married the man Miss Hilly wanted, all alone in her big house outside of town? And why is she so desperate to learn the basics of housework and cooking that she ignores all the warnings from other white women and hires Minny? (Am I bothered? Not massively.) It has to be hush-hush: Mister Johnny mustn’t know what – or who – is bringing about the sudden improvement in household management. When he arrives home unexpectedly one day, Minny feels she has to hide in one of their many bathrooms and stand on the toilet seat. But we catch a fleeting glimpse of Johnny in a later chapter, and he doesn’t seem like a monster….
Stockwell decides she needs another ingredient, a white character who isn’t a typical Southerner. This is Skeeter: part time-travelling liberal – it’s never clear where she gets her fully-formed political correctness from, decades before the invention of the term; part comic relief, with her stick-like figure, unfashionable height, big feet and frizzy hair; part feminist heroine in her rejection of the marriage market that all the Jackson women – including, endlessly, her mother – keep pushing her into; and part literary figure…
…because it’s in the Miss Skeeter chapters that Stockett can get on with the literary aspects of the novel’s central conceit. Having been born yesterday Skeeter – real name Eugenia, not that anybody calls her that – applies for a job with a major publisher in New York. She has zero experience, and in the real world her application would simply disappear. What happens in the world of this novel is like what happens to Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement: an editor takes pity on her naivety and replies to her. As in Atonement, the author is able to play a few metafictional games, as the editor is able to commentate not only on the literary aspirations of the ingénue, but also on aspects of the novel we’re reading.
Elaine Stein invites Skeeter to submit some ideas, but she can tell that the ones she comes up with are not from the heart. (Can you believe she’d be this interested? Neither can I.) Skeeter then, basically, comes up with a real idea and makes a pitch. It’s good, but Elaine Stein, god-like, can see through Skeeter like, well, a god. The pitch is for a book based on interviews with black maids, to find out what they really think about their white employers – and Stein knows there’s no way that Skeeter has really found anybody to agree. All Skeeter can do, hiding with the phone in the pantry like a schoolgirl, is lie: she has really found several willing interviewees, she has.
So, only eight chapters in, we have another crisis. And guess what? She finds a way. Aibileen has been helping her with ideas for her housekeeping column in the local paper – Skeeter having joined a long line of literary characters writing ridiculous columns, from Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop to Quoyle in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News – and she asks her. Aibileen – who was the one to give her the idea, accidentally – stonewalls her. Finally she gives her a definite no: Stein had got it absolutely right. But then… in a definitely non-comic episode, Skeeter is present when Aibileen’s unspeakable boss practically forces her to say thank you for the new toilet. And after that, she changes her mind, Skeeter has a project, and Stockett has a novel. Phew.
It doesn’t feel like a début novel because it’s so carefully crafted. The excuse for the black boy being blinded is because – guess – he used the wrong toilet. There are set piece scenes in every chapter: the toilet-training of Mae Mobley, again in the wrong toilet, which causes the archetypal unsympathetic mother to slap her; the suspicions of the black neighbours when Skeeter visits Aibileen to try to persuade her; the comically disastrous blind date…. I can’t help thinking there must be a real Elaine Stein in this author’s life – or several Elaine Steins – offering mountains of editorial advice… but my prejudices are showing again.
Finally: period detail. Stockett gives to Aibileen the knowing observation that if the white women are discussing Jackie Kennedy the talk will only be about what she’s wearing. There’s the smoking in public, the antediluvian attitudes to sex: that blind date is like… well, what is it like? I’m assuming that Stockett must have been well on the way to completing this novel when the first series of Mad Men appeared in 2007, but the awful evening is straight out of it. And… just one other detail: as Skeeter waits for the ‘Shinolator’ to perform its magic on her hair she finishes reading To Kill a Mockingbird. And I’m back where I started.
I’ve picked up the book again six weeks after putting it down, and once we’ve swallowed the elephant of the novel’s central conceit, it carries on at its own pace. I’m just as convinced as I was before that Stockett has had a whole sackful of editorial advice: each narrator, in her one- or two-chapter sections, moves things forward a bit, introduces another morsel of plot or period detail to keep us interested. Sometimes it can be engaging, but sometimes I feel I’m being manipulated.
One of the most blatant bits of manipulation is the treatment meted out to Yula May. She’s Hilly’s maid, and she’s an archetype of hard-working aspiration. And, just before she’s about to spill the beans to Skeeter about what it’s like to work for her so-called friend… she makes one tiny mistake and messes it all up. She steals a ring that Hilly doesn’t like and has never worn so that she can afford to send – sob – not just one of her twin boys to college, but both of them. On the implausibility scale, this act of hers reaches about 11: how on earth did she ever think she would get away with it? Did she think Hilly wouldn’t notice the disappearance of an item of jewellery, even one she hated…? Etc. She could expect six months in jail for that, in fact receives four years plus a fine that wipes out the college nest-egg because Hilly knows someone who knows the judge….
The black church rallies around, sorts out a new fund for the boys – they will go to college. Skeeter has stumbled on the meeting at Aibileen’s house, and is moved by the blacks’ outrage at the palpable injustice. She fears they must hate her too, but no: crucially, they show their respect for the white who is helping them in a way that reminded me, perhaps inevitably, of To Kill a Mockingbird. We get an ‘I’m Spartacus!’ moment as, one by one and regardless of the potential risk to themselves, a dozen maids agree to talk to her. Skeeter is going to get her book.
This is quite late on in the chapters I’ve read, and a large part of the middle section of the novel is taken up with the obstacles in the way of the maids’ willingness to stick their necks out. In particular, there’s the shooting of a high-profile local Civil Rights activist who dares to speak insultingly about the racist governor of the state – one of the times in which Stockett slips in a historical event in order to move the plot on or create a suspenseful crisis for her characters. One of the consistent themes is the genuine sense of fear the maids have to endure. Aibileen and Minny spell out more than once the devastating effects of merely being fired. You can’t get another job, and soon the whites’ bush telegraph means your children lose their jobs, your husband loses his…. It’s no surprise that before the sense of outrage brought about by the persecution of Yula May, Skeeter and Aibileen, who have effectively been collaborators since about Chapter 10, have almost despaired of finding maids who will speak out. In other words, Stockett needs Yula May to act out of character in order to move things on.
I hadn’t finished the previous entry, so now I’ve got 15 chapters to write about. First, the book project. We get Aibileen’s story, which she practically writes for herself. It’s one of the annoying things in the novel that Aibileen, proud of her writing skill – she always writes her prayers to God – still manages to use comedy malapropisms that Skeeter has to correct. Anyway, Skeeter sends it to Elaine Stein – and gets a reply: if she can get a dozen interviews like this, she might be interested. Cue period detail: there’s talk of Martin Luther King’s plan to speak in Washington later in the year, and Stein thinks her liberal readers might be ready for what Skeeter is offering. Cue panic, chapter after chapter of Aibileen failing to get any of the 30-odd maids she asks to speak out…. The first thaw is Minny whose bark, Stockett is slowly revealing, is far worse than her bite. (Is it the murder of the civil rights activist that brings about her change of heart? Might be.) And so on, with Aibileen taking on as much responsibility for the project as Skeeter.
Next. Minny’s dealings with Miss Celia, who is as far outside the Jackson ladies’ clique as her big house is outside the city. We’ve always known she’s from a piss-poor background, and Stockett uses her to nibble away at another theme: class. As Miss Hilly emerges more and more as the villain, her treatment of Celia comes to represent snobbery at its worst. Nobody will return Celia’s calls – Miss Elizabeth, Aibileen’s boss, is shown to be the most craven of those who jump to do whatever Hilly tells them – and nobody will explain why.
It’s part of yet another theme: the way white women operate in this particular circle of hell. Aibileen, whom Stockett has decided to make a kind of unschooled writing genius (I couldn’t help thinking of the highly implausible Renee in Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog), describes the weapons used by white women. They aren’t guns and fists but cruel, insidious instruments that lose you your job or, as we see in the later chapters, inflate prison sentences on trumped-up charges. (The stone in the ring is a garnet, not a ruby as Hilly pretends.) Stockett likes to tell us about these things, then show them in action.
Except in Celia’s case she does it the other way round: we’ve seen how Celia is treated as trash, draw our own conclusions – and then Stockett spells it out in a conversation in which Aibileen explains it all to Minny. Aibileen is determined to get rid of the ‘lines’ between people, is telling May Mobley dangerous secret stories that seek to prove how colour is only skin-deep – and explains this to Minny in a lesson even a three-year-old could understand. Yeh, we get it – and so does Minny, who finally twigs that she is allowed to have feelings for white people… and that white people exercise power over one another in ways that have nothing to do with colour.
All this moves forward the Minny/Celia thread: Minny has helped Celia in a harrowing scene in which the white woman miscarries for the fourth time; and Celia has saved Minny in a scene which Stockett decides to add new ingredients: sex and violence. In what I can only assume is intended as light relief following pages focusing on the beating that Minny has just suffered – this time, she shudders, her husband Leroy was cold sober – we get an almost comic scene. At the big house the two women are threatened by a naked white man, and Minny goes out to try to beat him off. But it’s Celia who is able to make use of her white trash fighting background to get rid of him. (Men and violence. I should come back to that.)
I realise I’ve hardly mentioned Skeeter. There are two big threads for her: love and politics. Love comes in the form of the man she had the disastrous date with, He comes to visit some weeks or months later, apologises, and one thing leads to another. Unfortunately it all seems to be over by Chapter 20, when we get the dinner party that turns out as disastrously as the original date. Skeeter is devastated: he seems not to have recovered from the betrayal by the former fiancée she thought she knew all about – and, equally disturbingly, one of the reasons he couldn’t forgive her was because she slept with – gasp! – an integrationist. His father is a state senator who, in this universe, would not survive if it became known that his son was married to a woman with such – er – sympathies. I’m not at all bothered about this relationship, which Stockett seems to have created by numbers, but I bet she’ll get it sorted out by the end.
For Skeeter, the ugliness of racial politics has become equally troublesome. In one of those little crisis moments this novel is full of, she leaves her satchel behind at a ladies’ meeting. Stockett has had her narrators tell us at least twice that the contents are dynamite: the typescript of Aibileen’s story, to say nothing of a guide to the Jim Crow segregation laws she’s implausibly stumbled upon in the wrong section of the library. It’s Hilly who finds it, and Skeeter has a tense half-hour wondering how much of it she will have read. Answer: only the laws, which she has confiscated. This one has a slow burn. Bit by bit – and I can’t remember all the bits – a tiny suspicion grows that Skeeter isn’t 100% with the ladies’ league on absolutely every issue. Things reach a head with a stage-whispered row at a meeting over the newsletter article Skeeter never has typed up, the one about the scheme for separate toilets…
…and Skeeter plays a little practical joke on her old friend: she accidentally mistypes ‘toilets’ for ‘coats’ in a charity appeal also submitted by Hilly, and next day her lawn is full of them. It makes the local paper, the state paper – and the national news. Skeeter is toast, as Stockett uses the incident to accelerate Hilly’s evolution from bitchy suburban housewife to full Cruella de Vil status. Whenever we meet Hilly after this little trick she is a highly-tuned mixture of egotism and hypocrisy. (Stockett seems so proud of having thought of the league’s main beneficiaries being ‘the starving children of Africa’ that she seems to have forgotten that Harper Lee invented the joke nearly 50 years earlier. But, unlike the eight-year-old Scout in that novel, her readers obviously can’t see the inconsistency for themselves: Stockett needs one of her characters to spell it out for us.) Skeeter, meanwhile, is functionally friendless.
Anything else about her? There’s something of the Fanny Price effect from Austen’s Mansfield Park in her slow emergence from ugly duckling into something else. We know all about her height and her unmanageable hair – but, for her once (and no doubt future) boyfriend she is beautiful. Sigh. And there’s another thread: little hints that her mother is more ill than she is saying. Secret visits to the hospital, a growing frailty…. She’s obviously not long for this world, although I’m not sure why Stockett wants to introduce such a theme. Er…. I’ve had enough of Skeeter for now.
How about the black maids’ stories? After Aibileen’s about a quarter of the way into the novel, details of their lives are notable by their absence. Twelve people have spoken to Skeeter in Aibileen’s house, but it’s as though Stockett has already used up her fund of ideas: we get no verbatim reports. What we do get – and this, from the tiny bit of biography I’ve read, is Stockett writing about what she knows – are descriptions of the absolutely genuine bond between the maids and the white children they look after. Running alongside this are the glimpses we get of Aibileen with Mae Mobley. As usual, Stockett has to hit us over the head with it: the little girl has taken to telling Aibileen that she is her real mother, as her biological mother continues to be presented as almost pathologically uncaring. Ok, as I think I’ve said before, we get it. And, just in case we’re getting the impression that all whites are this bad, some of the maids say how well they have been treated. There are Atticus Finches out there if you look.
Which brings us to various little themes and threads that suggest Stockett has in mind a wider agenda concerning white society. It’s 1963, so we get the Pill, and Valium – the latter in particular illustrating the dysfunction of white culture compared to black. White friendships are mean-minded compared to those of the blacks, and respect is only to be gained through money and by striving for status. Where’s the sense of community when anybody who doesn’t conform to the pattern demanded by the alpha male (or, in this novel, female) is cast out? Or when anybody from a different class has no chance of ever breaking in?
There’s also Vietnam and the space-race. (We haven’t had the Kennedy assassination in Dallas yet, but it’s just around the corner.) What to say about these, except that they are almost exclusively white middle-class concerns with no relevance to the maids’ day-to-day lives? And they add period colour, like the brand-names of cars and air-conditioning units. Ok. Stockett is doing her best to create a believable evocation of the early 60s. One-dimensional characterisation and a patronising sentimentality concerning the blacks spoil it, but hey.
At the end of the section I’ve just finished reading comes the set piece scene of Chapter 24, subtitled The Benefit. Stockett is so determined for us not to miss a single nuance she gives up on her three narrators: she can’t risk having it being told by one of her characters, however all-hearing they are. (Aibileen, in particular, overhears supposedly secret conversations absolutely all the time, but there are limits.) We see Hilly supreme, while there are two characters, both on her hit-list, who have a miserable time. Skeeter is one of them; the other is Miss Celia, recovered from her miscarriage (the one during which Minny saved her life) and wanting to make a good impression. Mistake. Stockett, in that characterisation-by-numbers way of hers, has made her so archly naïve about how middle class women operate that she dresses like a hooker and thinks a quiet conversation with Hilly will solve the silly misunderstanding between them. (Don’t ask.) It’s a slow-motion car crash. It culminates in an accusation from Hilly that Celia has bid for a cake in the auction on her behalf in order to humiliate her – and Celia, shocked and drunk, tears Hilly’s gown and vomits all over the floor.
Hilly is wrong about the cake and, following her near-apotheosis in the role of chief emcee at the benefit it looks, possibly, like the first crack the armour-plated structure she’s built up for herself. The characterisation and battle-lines are like a Disney movie, and we’ve reached that point where it looks as though it can’t get any worse for the characters we’re supposed to like…. But if there’s one thing Stockett can do – and it is only one thing – it’s plot, and I’m wondering how in the final quarter of the novel she will bring about the reversal in fortunes that is bound to come.
Chapter 26 to the end
I haven’t changed my mind about Stockett’s ability to put a plot together. What she also does in the final chapters – subject to those teasing bits of suspense that hold back any sense of relief until she’s good and ready – is to distribute prizes to all her hard-working characters and punishments for those who deserve them. My impression is that every single loose end is tied up in true happy-ending style. (Last time I wrote I mentioned the Fanny Price effect, in which a character everybody regards as an awkward ugly duckling becomes the swan in the end. The distribution of prizes and wooden spoons is another thing that Stockett has imported wholesale from a novel written 190 years earlier. But, girls, why change a winning formula?) There’s even the requisite bitter-sweetness in Aibileen’s final goodbye to the child she calls little girl: Stockett wouldn’t want us to be left with the wrong impression, that everything is easy. But it is really.
When I suggested a few chapters back that it looks as though it couldn’t get any worse for the characters, I was wrong. Skeeter, before she reaches the Emerald City – New York City, in fact, but you know what I mean – has to endure a lot more setbacks and slowly comes to realise that there’s nobody in her own community, or even family, that she can rely on. Her tenuous connection with the ladies’ league, editorship of the newsletter, is taken from her by – guess who. Stuart, the boyfriend, does come back, even proposes marriage – but is frightened off forever when she tells him what she’s been writing about.
It goes on. She finds out the story of Constantine, the maid who had to leave before the novel opens, and discovers that it was her own mother’s Jackson-style prejudice that forced the issue. (Constantine’s illegitimate daughter was born with white skin – just one of those things – and it’s too much for anybody to cope with, especially when the girl returns from Chicago thinking she’s no worse than a white woman.) As if things couldn’t get worse, Elaine Stein tells her they don’t have until mid-January to complete the book, but must deliver by 21 December – which, impossibly, is less than three weeks away. Then Skeeter remembers it will take a week for the manuscript to get there! Omigod!
And so on. Each setback has its own little packet of suspense to go with it – like, when they do send the typescript, it’s less than a week from the deadline, and they don’t hear a thing for over three weeks…. And yes, it does become formulaic. Sleepless nights of typing, and all the attendant stress, give way to weeks of waiting; this is replaced, when they find out that it will be published, by months of worry about what will happen if anybody finds out they wrote it; which leads to the next worry: will anybody buy it? And so on.
Meanwhile…. Minny is pregnant for the sixth time as they wait for the book to be published. So there are opportunities for the gallows humour we’ve come to expect in Stockett’s version of the black community: Leroy doesn’t hit her when she’s pregnant so, Aibileen says, Minny will make sure it will happen again after this one. How we laughed. However, as tensions rise in the town following one of Stockett’s credibility-stretching plot manoeuvres – a reviewer on state-wide tv programme is sent a copy and guesses it’s about Jackson – Leroy suspects Minny is ‘up to something’.
I said earlier that I’d come back to male violence. In Stockett’s universe, this is just how it is with some men: if they’re black they beat their wives (if they haven’t left them with the kids years ago); if they’re white they torture or murder uppity blacks. It isn’t all men, but it’s enough for it to feel like a formula, especially in connection with the blacks. We meet plenty of non-violent white men, but Minny’s violent husband is the only partner of any black character we meet. (The reverend of the church doesn’t count, because he’s from stock. To be specific, he’s Reverend Sykes from To Kill a Mockingbird.) The way Stockett seems to see it, everybody knows what black men are like so it’s ok to present them this way.
The violence reaching a crisis is just a thread in the bigger crisis brought about by the publication of the book. If the characters had been worried before, now they are in a simmering stew of anxiety. Specifically, Hilly is convinced it’s about Jackson, is also convinced – sometimes rightly – that she guesses who is who. What’s a cow like her going to do? Get her friends to fire their maids, obviously. But – and there’s always a ‘but’ with this author and her plot devices – Hilly hasn’t read the last chapter. It contains the story, which Hilly has always kept a secret, of how she once ate a pie containing – wait for it – shit, cooked by Minny in revenge for some atrocity before she left. It would be humiliation on a grand scale for this secret ever to come out…
…so suddenly, having reached the end of the book, Hilly is telling everybody it isn’t about Jackson. This is exactly what Skeeter and the others had hoped for – Minny has insisted on including the story as ‘insurance’ against Hilly doing exactly what she has been doing – but a lot of the damage is done. In the plot-driven world Stockett inhabits, this is how it had to be done: she’s offered a plausible reason for Minny’s chapter to come at the end – it’s the most feisty and outrageous of the lot – because she has to have Hilly both publicise the Jackson connection and then insist that she ‘did not eat that pie.’
This is our Disney ending as far as Cruella de Vil goes. Her machinations are going on in the background, but when Stockett actually brings her on-stage her she’s a ruin. She turns up at the house where Skeeter still lives with her parents – though not for long, as we are about to find out – and looks so haggard Skeeter’s dying mother offers to pay for a hair appointment and makeover. Hilly had brought a letter about what Skeeter has done, but she’s so mortified with humiliation, and is so shocked by the way the cancer-ridden old woman looks, that she leaves with it crushed in her hand. That’s one point for the good guys.
So Hilly takes it out on Minny, by pulling that trick Stockett has told us all about: her husband knows Leroy’s boss and gets him fired. Leroy knows it must be Minny’s fault, so comes home, throws the kids in the yard, locks her in the bathroom and threatens to burn down the house with her in it. My, what creatures men are in Stockett’s world. But she’s been thinking about leaving him for a long time and manages to escape. Following the obligatory page or two of suspense, she goes to live with the kids in her sister’s conveniently large farmhouse, conveniently nearer to Celia’s out-of-town residence than before. And she’s had a promise from Celia’s husband that she has a job for life after saving Celia following the miscarriage. In other words, Hilly has unintentionally helped to sort out Minny’s life for her: two points for the good guys.
Aibileen is Elizabeth’s maid, and Elizabeth is Hilly’s best remaining friend. (Some others, surprise surprise, are becoming tired of her controlling ways, and there’s talk – gulp – of her being voted off as president of the ladies’ league.) So she has the power to get Aibileen the sack – which she does by falsely accusing her of theft. How will Aibileen manage in jail, once Elizabeth has pressed charges? Cue scene of desperate leave-taking between Aibileen and Mae Mobley – made bearable only by the way that the little girl has had her consciousness raised so far that she’s obviously going to turn into a civil rights activist when she grows up – in which Sockett lets us know, again, that the black maids are these children’s real mothers. Are we worried? Of course not. This is the final chapter, and Aibileen subjects Hilly to further mortification when she tells her that if she goes to jail, she’ll be writing a lot of letters to a lot of people about what Miss Hilly is really like, and in jail ‘paper is free….’ Hilly drops the idea of pressing charges.
Aibileen has lost her job – but, as she waits for the bus, she contemplates her future. There are (small) royalties coming in from the book; she has a job writing the column that Skeeter has been writing for the local paper – so long as nobody knows she’s black, ho-ho; and, although that won’t pay all the bills, well, maybe she can write down all those stories. She ain’t going to be looking after no more o’ they white kids, and the future’s looking good. Three points to the good guys.
Miss Hilly is all washed up. She’s made her own prison – I think it’s Aibileen who comes up with this image – in a town where, even if she denies it for the rest of her life, everybody knows what happened to her and what sort of person she is. And the times – Stockett really does have Skeeter hear the Dylan song for the first time in a moment of crisis – they are a changin’: we’ve had Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, and the racists aren’t going to have the upper hand forever. Shit, one little book has done more to raise their consciousness than anyone would ever have imagined. (Or believed, in my case, but never mind that.)
Skeeter, whose life in Jackson has shrunk to nothing, can turn her back on it. In an earlier chapter she imagines what her life would have been like had she not written the book. She would be wife to Stuart, looking forward to bridge club and tennis, thinking about having a baby…. But she’s received her Get out of Jail card in the form of a job offer in the publishing house that Elaine Stein works for. The American Dream is alive and well in this universe, and the whole world is her oyster.
And that’s it. The book has now been filmed – go straight to thehelpmovie – and a flawed cultural product receives another accolade. Sometimes it’s enough to make you want to just give up. For me, this novel is another Avatar. In that movie, a white man looks into America’s shameful past and makes a feelgood movie about how it could have been different. The chief character is a white man able, through mind-transference, to inhabit the body of one of the indigenous people. And guess what? he’s the one who saves them all and gets rid of the oppressors. In The Help we get a white woman looking into America’s shameful past and writing a feelgood novel about it. The chief character is a white woman able, through dictation and transcription, to get her readers to inhabit the lives of the oppressed minority. She saves them all and shows how the oppressors are not going to have it their own way from now on, no sirree.
Is it that crude? Yes and no. Yes, the engine of the plot is driven by the the white woman’s idea, and the blacks would not have achieved anything without her. No, because the plotting is so clever it is often able to divert our attention from the book’s weaknesses. Stockett takes us on an interesting enough tour of the routine oppression of everyday life in the recent past in parts of the US, and this is what people praise about the novel. There’s the march on Washington, and mentions of other civil rights activity, but it’s all in the background, usually there to give extra drive to the plot. Skeeter is the main driving force, and we’re left with the problem I had from the start: this is history told by a white woman, and her imitation of black voices – one black commentator calls it a parody – is only ever an invention. The book created by the characters – the one made up of real black voices – does not exist.
No, the plotting isn’t crude at all. History may be dirty and brutal, and Stockett is able to make us shake our heads in disapproval at it, but what readers want is resolution. So we get it, time after time. All the little obstacles fall away, all the big obstacles are overcome, and people get what they deserve. So we’re on this author’s side, are grateful… and the good feeling we’re getting feels like approval for a greater achievement: Stockett, we think, has done a good thing, because these are issues that need to be aired lest we should ever forget. A neat trick indeed by a début novelist.