From February 22, 2012
The Help is a story about race relations in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. It centres around three women: two coloured, and one white. What begins as a quest to find out what happened to her coloured maid, Constantine, quickly turns into something more for SKeeter Phelan – the white girl. She sees the racism and bigotry that is occurring in her hometown, by her own family and some of her closest friends, and decides that she is going to write about it. She begins to write a book, possibly to expose the racist and bigoted behaviour, but as more maids come along she finds that their stories are something different. Not every family is outwardly hostile to their maids, and some even gain a mutual respect and care for their maids as much as the maid does the family.
I think that the reading group questions at the end of the book are sufficiently broad that I can best sum up my response to this book by answering them. See below:
1. Who was your favorite character? Why?
I liked Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny equally, but obviously for different reasons. Skeeter obviously did not face the same dangers that the other two did, however she was willing to proceed with her story despite the fact that she lost her friends, and her fiancé. It was more important to her that she try to do something to improve society, than it was that she keep up with the status quo. Minny was a fun character for the fact that she spoke her mind, consequences be damned. Yes, she did reproach herself for her big mouth, but that did not mean that she was going to stand by and let things happen. And while it was gross, the pie she gave to Hilly, it was absolutely amazing that she would have the gall to do it. Aibileen, on the other hand, is at first seen as one of our status quo ‘coloureds.’ She is initially more concerned with keeping her job than changing things, but she is the one to first come around. We learn that she is probably the strongest of all.
2. What do you think motivated Hilly? On the one hand she is terribly cruel to Aibileen and her own help, as well as to Skeeter once she realizes that she can’t control her. Yet she’s a wonderful mother. Do you think that one can be a good mother but, at the same time, a deeply flawed person?
Yes. A woman does not have to be perfect to be a good mother. I think that Hilly was a control freak and a bully, and insecure. I don’t know if she was that wonderful of a mother, though. Yes, she was more affectionate to her children, but they were also quite young and generally not apt to show their own thoughts. It would be interesting to see if she shared that much for her children if they acted as Mae Mobley did, or if they turn out not to be racist in their later years.
3. Like Hilly, Skeeter’s mother is a prime example of someone deeply flawed yet somewhat sympathetic. She seems to care for Skeeter—and she also seems to have very real feelings for Constantine. Yet the ultimatum she gives to Constantine is untenable; and most of her interaction with Skeeter is critical. Do you think Skeeter’s mother is a sympathetic or unsympathetic character? Why?
The majority of societies can be divided into two distinct types of people: the leaders and the followers. Hilly, bully that she is, is a leader. She thrives on the racist ideologies of Jackson, even promoting the toilet initiative. She is very much an unsympathetic character. Charlotte Phelan, on the other hand, is generally a good and caring person, but like many of us, is not willing to stand up to her convictions at the expense of her place in society. She cares for her daughter, wanting to make sure she’s taken care of, as evidenced by her concern that Skeeter find someone to settle down with, by making the quip about arranging Skeeter’s hair appointments for the next ten years. And she does not shun Skeeter when Hilly shows up in her deranged state near the end of the book.
4. How much of a person’s character would you say is shaped by the times in which they live?
Character is shaped by interactions with other people and by experiences. Therefore I think that it is almost wholly shaped by the times someone lives in. In the case of Aibileen and Minny, would they have dared to help Skeeter if the Civil RIghts movement hadn’t been going on? Aibileen specifically mentions how shocked she is to see 60,000 white people at the Washington Monument. If this story had taken place ten years earlier she might not have helped. And if Medgar Evers hadn’t been killed, the other maids may not have helped as well. And Skeeter, near the end of the book, hears the Bob Dylan song The Times They Are A Changin’. They know that a great shift is coming, and are specifically building on that.
5. Did it bother you that Skeeter is willing to overlook so many of Stuart’s faults so that she can get married, and that it’s not until he literally gets up and walks away that the engagement falls apart?
If this were a story written in today’s time frame, absolutely. Taken in context of the time period, and the geographical location, no. Up until the women’s liberation movement starting in the 1960’s it was expected that women would marry. I am sure that it was quite common for them to marry someone less than pleasant rather than becoming a spinster. It is also important that at the time Skeeter’s mother was very sick, and she wanted to do things to make her last few months pleasant.
6. Do you believe that Minny was justified in her distrust of white people?
We all learn from experience, whether it be our own or that of others. Until Skeeter and Celia, MInny’s experience with white people was negligible at best. Generations of past experience, plus her own nearly forty years of experience had not predisposed Minny to trust white people. She was certainly starting to change her beliefs by the end of the book, however, or she never would have had the confidence in her job security to leave Leroy.
7. Do you think that had Aibileen stayed working for Miss Elizabeth, that Mae Mobley would have grown up to be racist like her mother? Do you think racism is inherent, or taught?
This is possible the stupidest question on this list. We are repeatedly shown that Mae Mobley is affectionate with Aibileen, much more so than she is with her own mother. I doubt that even after Aibileen left that Mae Mobley would become racist. She was at an age where we do remember things. The separation from Aibileen was something that would likely stick with her. I also doubt that Elizabeth would proceed without any other help, so Mae would still be around coloured people. I think that her separation from Aibileen might be a catalyst to her own civil rights involvement, much as Constantine’s dismissal was for Skeeter.
8. From the perspective of a twenty-first century reader, the hair shellac system that Skeeter undergoes seems ludicrous. Yet women still alter their looks in rather peculiar ways as the definition of “beauty” changes with the times. Looking back on your past, what’s the most ridiculous beauty regimen you ever underwent?
9. The author manages to paint Aibileen with a quiet grace and an aura of wisdom about her. How do you think she does this?
The simple answer is because we have Aibileen’s narrative voice. If we didn’t it would be much harder to determine her intelligence. All she is, after all, is the maid, not generally a very scholarly profession. Aibileen, unlike Skeeter, unlike MInny, knows the costs and is concerned with keeping everyone safe. She knows very well what could happen if the wrong people found out what she was taking to Skeeter about. She also knows, though, that things will never change unless something is done.
10. Do you think there are still vestiges of racism in relationships where people of color work for people who are white? Have you heard stories of parents who put away their valuable jewelry before their nanny comes? Paradoxically, they trust the person to look after their child but not their diamond rings?
I do not know anyone who had a nanny, per se, but there are absolutely still vestiges of racism everywhere. I think today the majority of racism or prejudice comes not from true hatred of other races or religions, but really from not understanding them. Yes, someone might have different beliefs, or different skin colour, but underneath they are the same as everyone else.
11. What did you think about Minny’s pie for Miss Hilly? Would you have gone as far as Minny did for revenge?
I cannot possibly answer this question, as I do not have Minny’s experiences. The shit aspect is extremely disgusting, however I do like to think that were I in Minny’s situation I would do something.
I have also decided that since it is Black History Month, I am going to commit to read two other books: Roots by Alex Haley and Native Son by Richard Wright.