There’s a line in the new musical The Book of Mormon in which a Mormon missionary stands in front of a warlord in Uganda and sings that “in 1978 God changed his mind about black people,” as part of his explanation of what he believes. This pretty much sums up my reaction to first seeing the movie of The Help and then reading the book. Why is this book popular right now? The only answer I could come up with is that few people alive today have lived with “help,” so there’s a safe historical distance from the events Kathryn Stockett’s novel describes.
The movie is a civil rights tearjerker, and I resent the way it sets the audience up to feel good about how much better race relations are today. I was curious about the book because of all the praise it’s gotten from book bloggers, but what finally made me read it is today’s discussion with the Imaginary Friends Book Club. The book does reveal a few details the movie left out, like that the daughter of the main character’s maid could “pass” for white, but I didn’t like it much better than I liked the movie (other opinions at Life in Scribbletown, Kitties, Kitties, Kitties, and Lemming’s Progress).
The characters are, ironically, pretty much all black or all white; the white characters are the blackest of villains. And for some of them, it’s because they can’t rise above their historical circumstances. The mother of the main character isn’t good enough to stand up for what is right the way her daughter does. Reading about any volatile historical period fifty years later means you’re going to know which side was in the right and wonder how so many people could have been so wrong. I don’t like the way the story simplifies what might have been, at the time, complicated emotional issues:
“You see her in the…grocery, you never think she go and leave her baby crying in her crib like that. But the help always know.”
The simplification goes on and on, even though the story itself contradicts it. There’s an entire page describing what happens when a black maid angers a white lady, and it sounds genuinely from the point of view of a character, and points to a historical reality:
“First thing a white lady gone do is fire you. You upset, but you figure you’ll find another job, when things settle down, when the white lady get around to forgetting. You got a month a rent saved. People bring you squash casseroles.
But then a week after you lost your job, you get this little yellow envelope stuck in your screen door. Paper inside say NOTICE OF EVICTION. Ever landlord in Jackson be white and ever one got a white wife that’s friends with somebody. You start to panic some then. You still ain’t got no job prospects. Everwhere you try, the door slams in your face. And now you ain’t got a place to live.
Then it starts to come a little faster.
If you got a note on your car, they gone repossess it.
If you got a parking ticket you ain’t paid, you going to jail.
If you got a daughter, maybe you go live with her. She tend to a white family a her own. But a few days later she come home, say ‘Mama? I just got fired.’ She look hurt, scared. She don’t understand why. You got to tell her it’s cause a you.
Least her husband still working. Least they can feed the baby.
Then they fire her husband. Just another little sharp tool, shiny and fine.
They both pointing at you, crying, wondering why you done it. You can’t even remember why. Weeks pass and nothing, no jobs, no money, no house. You hope this is the end of it, that she done enough, she ready to forget.
It’ll be a knock on the door, late at night. It won’t be the white lady at the door. She don’t do that kind a thing herself. But while the nightmare’s happening, the burning or the cutting or the beating, you realize something you known all your life: the white lady don’t ever forget.
And she ain’t gone stop till you dead.”
But after this, what in the novel ends up saving the black maids who tell the stories about what it’s really like to work for these white women in Jackson, Mississippi in 1960? A sitcom solution called the “Terrible Awful.” It’s funny, and nobody really gets hurt. Just like real life, right? Except that we know better; we’ve already read the long passage about what was more likely to happen.
The only parts of the novel that strike me as both funny and true are the attempt by the mother of the main character to keep telling her what to wear from beyond the grave, and what one of the maids says to the child she is raising: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” I’ve quoted that line to two different people recently, and have occasionally ended up saying it to myself just to get through the day.
If you like looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, thinking that you never would have acted like THAT even if you’d lived back then, this is a novel for you. Wallow in your self-righteousness for an afternoon, and then go out and do something good, like read more about the issues or raise money for starving African children…the kind of children who dream about this country, as the Ugandan girl in the musical does, believing “the warlords there are friendly; they help you cross the street.”