The Right Author for the Wrong Story

Posted on June 22, 2010


After reading The Help, I came to the conclusion that the book wasn’t really about the maids, but Skeeter. Oh, the domestics play a part, but not as much as the spin over the book would lead one to believe. In creating and almost inhabiting the lead white character “Skeeter”, Kathryn Stockett is certainly the right author, imbuing Skeeter with an honest vunerability, but leaving enough ambition so that Skeeter realizes the maid’s stories can be her ticket to a job in publishing. 

Eugenia Phelan, aka “Skeeter”  mirrors most girls at twenty-three, unsure of her future, still under her mother’s influence, but also inquisitive, compassionate and like the maids in The Help, an outsider. She doesn’t think  the same as the people she associates with, like the viper tongued Hilly, or the malleable Elizabeth. That’s evident by her  bond with Constantine, a maid who was present during her formative years. Skeeter has quiet strength. While she jokingly challenges Hilly’s idea to have Elizabeth Leefolt construct a separate bathroom for the use of the black maids, she’s at least brave enough to express an opposing view, even in jest. Though Hilly effectively shuts her down, Skeeter isn’t through.

The wheels are in motion as Skeeter makes a point to bring up “bathroomgate” within earshot of Aibileen. She wants to let Aibileen know that she doesn’t agree with Hilly, and she’s not mindlessly going along. The reader learns in the first chapter that Skeeter is different. Skeeter can see beyond color, she can see character. And in The Help, its Skeeter who is the chosen one.

The book is titled The Help, but it’s really Skeeter’s journey of discovery. And the reader gets more than a peek at the customs and interactions between girlhood friends now grown.

Hilly is the married socialite, Elizabeth is the also married, but a harried housewife tagging along, and Skeeter, back home after college, silently longs to break free and become a writer. It’s 1962, and that’s quite a progressive thought for a southern girl.

In chapter five the reader learns how low Skeeter’s self-esteem is regarding her looks. She’s tall, with blonde hair that she considers frizzy. She describes her skin as fair, and though some may consider it creamy, she believes she looks “downright deathly when serious.”

In comparison to her mother’s pretty, smooth face and slim build, Skeeter confesses that she was not a cute baby. And though her eyes are the same cornflower blue as her mother’s, the slight bump on the top of her nose is yet another flaw that tarnishes her looks.

Still feeling the sting of Hilly’s threat during the bridge game over Elizabeth’s house (Hilly threatened to remove Skeeter as the editor of their league), Skeeter bemoans “Not that I care so much about the league, but I was hurt by how easily my friend would be willing to cast me aside.”

Hilly, Elizabeth and Skeeter have been friends since elementary school, with Hilly and Skeeter rooming together at Ole Miss for two years before Hilly leaves to get married. So her hurt at Hilly’s treatment is palpable, however as cruelly imperious as Hilly acts, its hard to believe  this could have been the first disagreement between the two.

The reader soon learns of Skeeter’s childhood, and her trips to visit the home of Constantine, the family’s maid. Through Skeeter’s recollection, the reader learns of the time she spent with Constantine. These appear to be some of the happiest moments of Skeeter’s life. And when Constantine is mysteriously let go while Skeeter is away at college, Skeeter is more than curious. She’s determined to find out why.

When the book turns toward Skeeter and her issues,  her quest for companionship with Stuart, her relationship with her mother and her search to apply her writing  talents to the right job, its here that Stockett’s dialogue and story run smooth.  Skeeter is actually the strongest character in terms of development in the novel, as she seems to mimick the steps Katherine Stockett took in creating this novel.  

Skeeter canvasses the maids in order to utilize their stories as the foundation for her novel. At first the maids are reluctant, but once Aibileen and Minny are on board, the rest soon follow.

In a not so unexpected twist, instead of learning more about what will be in Skeeter’s novel, the reader follows along on Skeeter’s soul searching journey. Skeeter’s longing for approval and affection from her mother, and the conflicted Stuart,  and even to some extent Hilly takes up most of the novel, while Aibileen and Minny are relegated to side players. While Skeeter is clearly a sympathetic liberal, the novel doesn’t dwell on how she became that way. There are references to her dad, a quiet man who expresses his dislike for the way African American help is treated. The reader is led to believe that because of her dad, Skeeter tilts more  toward his views on race relations instead of her mother’s.

However, even Skeeter exhibits a tendency to treat both Aibileen, Minny and the memory of her beloved Constantine as a means to an end. That is, the completion of the novel aptly called HELP.

In some ways the book is no different than the soap opera fiction of Imitation of Life, the 1934 version and the 1959 version where the travails of the white character is front and center though the plot teases the viewer with the side drama of the black maid.

Imitation of Life poster for both movie versions

The trailer for the 1959 version is a must see.

to be continued….

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