Review of The Help, novel by Kathryn Stockett. Its relationship with Grady’s Gift, an article published on the 1st of December 1991 on The New York Times. Theme: segregationism in the U.S. The plot and the controversy.
On the 1st of December 1991 The New York Times published an article that would have gone down in history. It was Grady’s Gift, a narration in the first person signed by Howell Raines, an editorialist soon to become one of the sharpest critics of J. W. Bush. The year after the article was awarded The Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing and ten years later Raines would have become the newspaper’s director (on that occasion, our Italian Corriere would have opened its first page with these words: The New York Times turns left).
But let’s listen to Raines’s voice.
“GRADY SHOWED UP ONE DAY at our house at 1409 Fifth Avenue West in Birmingham, and by and by she changed the way I saw the world. I was 7 when she came to iron and clean and cook for $18 a week, and she stayed for seven years. During that time everyone in our family came to accept what my father called “those great long talks” that occupied Grady and me through many a sleepy Alabama afternoon. What happened between us can be expressed in many ways, but its essence was captured by Graham Greene when he wrote that in every childhood there is a moment when a door opens and lets the future in. So this is a story about one person who opened a door and another who walked through it.
It is difficult to describe — or even to keep alive in our memories — worlds that cease to exist. Usually we think of vanished worlds as having to do with far-off places or with ways of life, like that of the Western frontier, that are remote from us in time. But I grew up in a place that disappeared, and it was here in this country and not so long ago. I speak of Birmingham, where once there flourished the most complete form of racial segregation to exist on the American continent in this century”.
Gradystein Williams Hutchinson (or Grady, as she was called in my family and hers) and I are two people who grew up in the 50’s in that vanished world, two people who lived mundane, inconsequential lives while Martin Luther King Jr. and Police Commissioner T. Eugene (Bull) Connor prepared for their epic struggle. For years, Grady and I lived in my memory as child and adult. But now I realize that we were both children — one white and very young, one black and adolescent; one privileged, one poor. The connection between these two children and their city was this: Grady saw to it that although I was to live in Birmingham for the first 28 years of my life, Birmingham would not live in me.”
I started my review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett quoting Raines’ text because Stockett herself says that the two stories are intertwined. Giving voice to Southern black women servants meant to go too far even if the relationship between white children and black women had left its mark on many souls. Thus it was imperative for literature to find the right words and plump the emotional and psychological depths of this grey zone. Some think thea The Help has found the right words, some others think that it has not.
Anyway, if The Help narrates this story is probably thanks to Grady’s Gift. But Kathryn Stockett’s Grady was named Demetrie and the novel is a sincere homage to her. Demetrie was the black woman who brought up Kathryn the writer as Constantine brought up the writer protagonist Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan.
Thus let’s have a look at the plot. It’s 1962 and Eugenia comes back to Jackson, Mississippi, after some years at the university. She’s a fish out of water. Her old friends are well integrated in the hypocrite and conformist Jackson society, while she fancies of becoming a writer. Trying to be accepted by the local crème she attends her friends’ salons, but she is soon banned. His short experience opens her eyes. She realizes that those houses where the white women organize bridge matches and charity parties are the same houses where the black women slip along the corridors and soothe the cry of white forgotten children.
Aibileen narrates the major part of the story. She is a black servant who has brought up seventeen children but lost her own child. She is wise, smart, moderate… the very contrary of her best friend Minny. Minny is the most impudent woman of Mississippi. A talented cook, she doesn’t manage to keep her mouth closed. She is continuously fired until one day when Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny meet in the same kitchen, close the curtains and start writing down their secret project.
The machinery is put in motion…
The context and the controversy:
We are living in the years when Bob Dylan is the protest marches’ soundtrack. Everyone in Jackson searches for a television in order to listen to Martin Luther King’s speech. He says he has a dream. Boundaries between black and white people don’t exist, says Aibileen. Someone invented them a lot of years ago.
Thus The Help is about boundaries. A first boundary between black and white people, and a second one which exists only in the mind of humans. And then a third boundary, drawn on the others like the shade of a trauma. It’s the prohibition to speak. In effect, there’s an ethical conflict to solve. Can a white woman write about that delicate relationship that linked white and black people during segregation? Can she avoid an unilateral point of view? Can speak in the name of a black woman? Stockett speaks of all this in the epilogue, but she received both positive and negative criticism. Reading the criticism together with the book’s epilogue (Too little, too late) we feel the inheritance of a deep social wound.
As a European woman born in 1980, it’s quite difficult for me to have a complex opinion on the historical accuracy of The Help. Under an emotional perspective, I loved the book but I must admit that I immediately felt that something was a bit too “white-centred” and thought that someone would have spoken against it. Perhaps its being white-centred can also be seen as a homage to black women who helped Stockett becoming who she now is… but obviously it can be rightly attacked. Besides, I also thought that it would have been very difficult to speak about this theme in any case. In this kind of situations, people loose the right of having a point of view, because each and and every point of view becomes – in some ways – extreme, guilty and partisan. I found an interesting article from a different voice here: Kathryn Stockett is not my sister, and I am not her help.
“And I think of Grady and the unrepayable gift she gave with such wit, such generosity, to such a boy, so many years ago.
Grady told me that she was moved when she went to a library and saw my book, an oral history of the civil rights movement entitled “My Soul Is Rested.” It is widely used on college campuses as basic reading about the South, and of everything I have done in journalism, I am proudest of that book.
I was surprised that Grady had not instantly understood when the book came out in 1977 that she was its inspiration. That is my fault. I waited much too long to find her and tell her. It is her book really. She wrote it on my heart in the acres of afternoon”.