The Help, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, will be out in 2011 as a movie, featuring some great actors: Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spacek, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone.
The movie version will feature locations shot in Jackson, Mississippi, where the story takes place. In the early nineteen-sixties, in the days leading up to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a young woman, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, comes home from college and becomes deeply involved in the lives of the African-American maids who work in the homes of everyone she knows.
Skeeter’s mother would much rather have her get involved in finding a husband and choosing a silver pattern. When Mom meets Skeeter’s brother Carlton’s girlfriend, she asks her what sorority she was in at Vanderbilt, and what her silver pattern is. “It’s better than a horoscope,” Mrs. Phelan claims.
But Skeeter is not in a hurry to get married. She has applied for a high-level editorial position at Harper and Row in New York. She doesn’t get the job, but she does get advice and encouragement from Elaine Stern, a senior editor there.
In Skeeter’s own home, Constantine, the maid she grew up with and loved, has suddenly disappeared, with no explanation from Skeeter’s mother.
We later learn the reason for Constantine’s disappearance and replacement by the new maid, Pascagoula.
This incident sets the tone for the book. Skeeter’s deep feelings for Constantine make her continue searching for her whereabouts and the reason for her departure-from the Phelan home and from Jackson.
These feelings also make Skeeter sympathetic to the other maids. On the advice of the editor in New York, Skeeter goes to her local newspaper to apply for a job. She is hired to write the household hints column “Ask Martha,” but of course she has no domestic skills or knowledge, because her family has always had a maid to take care of such things. So she asks her friend Elizabeth’s maid Aibileen to help her with the answers to people’s questions for “Martha.”
I love fiction that teaches me things as an extra bonus. Aibileen’s household tips include:
keep dogs out of the trash cans: Pour ammonia in the garbage.
get out hard-water stains: Use cream of tartar.
unscrew a lightbulb that has broken off in the socket: Use a raw potato
Doing the silver: Dipping is faster than polishing, but doesn’t look as good; only the tacky houses allow it.
I also love fiction that portrays domestic scenes well. Because of their lovely scenes between parents and children, taking place in cozy, well cared-for homes, I’ve enjoyed contemporary authors like Nancy Thayer and Elizabeth Berg, and, perhaps surprisingly, D. H. Lawrence. Kathryn Stockett is adept too at portraying domestic life.
Editor Elaine Stern also asks Skeeter to think of book topics to write about. At first Skeeter sends her a list of “expected” topics that have no real emotional resonance for Skeeter, and Elaine Stern rejects them outright. But when Skeeter becomes interested in the lives of the maids in Jackson, and suggests this for the topic of a book, she gets the green light.
Another thing I love about this book is Kathryn Stockett’s portrayal of the relationship between the maid Aibileen and her employer Elizabeth Leefolt’s daughter. Elizabeth is too involved in her own social life to spend a lot of time with her little girl Mae Mobley. Aibileen, whose son Treelore was killed at age twenty-four by a tractor-trailer at his workplace, lavishes Mae Mobley with the attention and affection Mae Mobley needs-and Aibileen needs to give.
The plot largely deals with Skeeter’s book about the lives of the maids in Jackson. Skeeter interviews Aibileen first, and the woman, like all the maids, is reluctant to answer Skeeter’s questions. But she offers to write it down for Skeeter, since she is in the habit of writing nightly; she writes her prayers. As it turns out, she is an excellent writer.
Little by little, more maids overcome their fears and become involved in Skeeter’s project.
And conversely, some of the women they work for begin to distance themselves from their childhood friend, Skeeter. One in particular, Hilly Holbrook, becomes an enemy.
In the end, things have changed a lot in all of the women’s lives, in the town of Jackson, Mississippi, and in the United States.
The novel ends on a note that is both triumphant and poignant-and, I think, realistic.
In the movie version of The Help, expected to be out in August 2011, Skeeter is played by Emma Stone, Aibileen by Viola Davis, and Constantine by Cicely Tyson. Sissy Spacek plays Missus Walters, the mother of Skeeter’s friend Hilly, and Octavia Spencer plays the spunky Minny. With a cast like that, and a great story, I don’t see how they can go wrong. It’s a film to look forward to.
The Help (book)
The Help (movie)
The Help (movie)
The Civil Rights Act of 1964