There are some books that you pick up to read and once started they do not let go until the end. The urge to read through the day and night, never putting it down, overcomes you. This is the power of The Help.
The Help is about the relationship, in the deep south, of household help to their employers, but it transcends geographical location in its study of abuse and condescension of one arrogant self-aggrandizing group over another group that is so powerless and so much weaker that the idea that it wasn’t recognized to be morally and ethically abhorrent by all, defies the imagination.
The white employers treated their black employees with disdain, as if they were nothing more than chattel, existing only to serve their needs, as if they had no needs of their own and were not entitled to any, had they had some.
Living in the north, I was aware only minimally of the marginalized way that blacks were treated. I lived in a ghetto, populated largely by Jews and a few Christians who happened to be the products of what was called a mixed marriage. The blacks were largely absent from my entire life except for those that worked in my household for my mom and a sprinkling in my high school who were always voted best dancer, an honor I realize now was quite dubious and reprehensible.
In my mother’s home, they were always treated with respect, although I am now aware that they were thought to be lesser beings by many others. When any of the women who worked for us had problems we always tried to help solve them. Personally, I was as attached to the women in our home as the characters in the book were to theirs. However, we never had full time help so I did not see that much interaction. It was as if everyone knew their place. In some instances that is normal. An employee always has to understand their place in their work environment, but after reading the book, I have to wonder if there wasn’t also a more subtle reason, a feeling of inferiority, perhaps, which caused it. None were forced to drink or eat from dishes or utensils that were isolated from ours and none were asked not to use our bathrooms. Many became part of the family, I thought, but now I realize they were not in the true sense of the word. Long term relationships never grew out of their employment with us. Out of sight, was out of mind and they seemed to always be easily replaced by another of the same background.
My household help is always treated fairly and paid well. When one leaves for one reason or another, many times our relationship has continued. We genuinely cared about each other apart and aside from the work relationship. I do not view them or their needs as different from mine and encourage them to use the money earned to become more educated and improve their lot in life, using this job as a stepping stone to a future with more improved circumstances. To a “man” they all say I am different and now, after reading the book, I have a better understanding as to why they feel that way.
Of course, the injustice of the way the “help” were treated should be obvious to all and should be considered reprehensible and the practice of treating them as lesser beings should be discontinued. I think, however, it is easier said than done. One group seems to always want to be above another, to feel superior; in all walks of life, in all fields of endeavor and in all places on the globe this ugly disparity exists.
The book made me wonder, often, if we will ever move on and stop man’s inhumanity to man, stop man’s mistreatment of those less fortunate. It made me ask the question, would we ever learn to welcome all, into the world, on equal terms.
Aibileen is a remarkable character, able to do her work happily although she is treated as someone who is dangerous, unclean, bearing diseases waiting to happen, so much so that her employer’s friends demand an outside bathroom for her use so as not to mix with them. This takes place in the early sixties, after Rosa Parks opened the front of the bus and James Meredith integrated the University so they should have been far more enlightened about equality than they were and far more able to tolerate “otherness”.
The haughty attitude of the women in the book was despicable and heart breaking…they actually believe they are better than the women who work for them because they have money, education and most of all, white skin.
Skeeter loved Constantine but is the child of a pompous woman who believes herself to be above all blacks and a father whose head is in the sand. Eugenia, (Skeeter) is different from her mom, but not altogether. I don’t think she is quite ready to accept blacks as equals although she recognizes that Constantine was probably a better mother to her. She spent the time necessary to raise her with love, in addition to proper ethics and morality while her mom performed her “social duties”.
Hilly was a spoiled brat who held grudges and didn’t care much about anything but protecting herself and her social image. She exerted control over her friends and their standing within the group and community. Her mom was failing, but unable to admit it, she blamed the housemaid Minny, whose reputation often preceded her because she could not hold her tongue. Then in an effort to get rid of her completely, she accused her of stealing in order to prevent her from getting work anywhere else in town. She was unconcerned about the impact of her decision on Minny’s live and livelihood. Minny was unimportant to her, a lesser creature. Somewhere in the background of the book, a similar thing happened to Constantine which led to her complete and unanticipated disappearance from Skeeter’s life, without explanation.
Constantine was the product of a different kind of mixed marriage and therefore had white blood coursing through her veins and a very light skinned daughter was proof of it. The daughter was the catalyst for the cataclysmic change in the relationship between Constantine and Skeeter.
Elizabeth is a weak minded social climber, longing to be accepted by those who have far more money than she does. The women act like they are still in a sorority, lording it over others and passing judgment upon them, making rules to live by to sustain the hierarchy they created.
Celia is from an even poorer section of town than the blacks and has no idea how to live in the world of the rich although she has married a very rich man, who once spurned Hilly, and therefore has incurred her wrath. With Abileen’s shrewd help, Celia is convinced to engage Minny to teach her how to cook and clean, so she can fool her husband, and is unaware of the lies Hilly has told about her. Minny's honesty, and perhaps disrespectful comments and openness do not offend her. She neither knows how to cook or clean. She can tend a garden but there are gardeners for that so she lies around all day reading magazines, eating chocolates and applying make-up. She is shallow but not for the same apparent reasons as the others. She just doesn’t know her place…an interesting contrast between her and the blacks. Because she is white, she was able to ascend into the world of white people, through her marriage, although she is not accepted at all by the society. However, she is unaware of her assigned place, unaware that the society of these women and the world they dominate is outside her sphere of entry. She hopes to befriend them but they want no part of her because she too is considered beneath them as the household help is considered beneath them. Blacks, have been conditioned to be very much aware of their place in the world of white people, however, she has not. She is a babe in the woods when it comes to these supercilious, pompous egotistic women who do nothing all day to serve anyone but themselves. One has to wonder how this world sustained itself and how it still continues to exist in some places, beyond reproach, not only for blacks but for people of other religions and skin colors, people who are considered to be “other than” or different. When will we learn and advance as a civilization?