From the very first chapter to the end of the book, the character of Aibileen (as spelled in the novel) is a narrator who not only voices her own thoughts, but gives uncanny, to the exact word observations of the people she works for. Aibileen is able to cross over in her dialect. In her own speech pattern she’s Southern, with a thick accent and words that are sometimes hard to decipher. When portraying the voice of her employer she’s able to form complete sentences and is easily read. An early example is on page one, where Aibileen recalls how Miss (Elizabeth) Leefolt, the frazzled mom of newborn Mae Mobley wonders, “What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I stop it?”
In truth, I was asking the same thing about Aibileen, after reading her remark internally It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation.
I wondered what became of her “southern” styled sentences.
Not to worry, she does lapse back into the style of speech first established , using phrases like “I reckon” “I seen” “she don’t” “she ain’t” among others. The strongest section of chapter one was Aibileen’s introduction of Mae Mobley, a child she calls “my special baby.”
It’s this relationship that is the sweet backbone of the novel, and their interaction is more than enough to draw the reader in.
There’s also a short section on Aibileen’s now deceased son. Treelore (I’ll get to the names of some of the characters later on). Here Aibileen decribes how Treelore died:
But one night, he working late at the Scanlon-Taylor mill, lugging two-by-fours to the truck, splinters slicing all the way through the glove. He was too small for that kind of work, too skinny, but he needed a job. He was tired, it was raining, He slip off the loading dock, fell down the drive. Tractor trailer didn’t see him and crushed his lungs fore he could move. By the time I found out, he was dead. (Aibileen, Pg 2)
She reads as more emotional when talking about Mae Mobley. As someone who’s lost a child, I can’t really put my finger on why the character seems disconnected from her own son’s death. Treelore hasn’t been dead ten years, but two, so the mourning would still be fresh. This may be a case of an author unable to tap into grief with her character.
The remainder of the chapter deals with Aibileen getting the house ready for the monthly bridge club while Miss Leefolt gives her orders. There’s a great deal of “she” in this section, as in “She pretty good” or “She twenty-three” a few extra “be’s” as in “Her hair be yellow” when describing Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a second main character who appears very friendly, as she enters the house with “Hey Aibileen, how you?”
And Aibileen replies, “”Hey, Miss Skeeter. I’m alright. Law, it’s hot in here.”
The use of the word “Law” threw me for a loop. But I then realized it was supposed to read as “Lord” or “Lawd.”
There’s a longer scene with Aibileen and her special girl Mae Mobley, then on page five Aibileen remarks how her son (when he was a teen) was able to say words like conjugation, parliamentary, domesticized feline and also motorized rotunda. But what’s even more amazing than Treelore’s ability to say these words, is how Abilileen can recall them without resorting to their phonetic equivalent, as she apparently did with the word “law” for “lord”. Especially after she reveals this information about Treelore’s father:
We start calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off on his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever know.
Sometimes humor is best left to professional comedians.
So, I’ve noted the character of Aibileen’s overuse of Southern dialect, then switching it off for no apparent reason.
And now the story brings up the no account black man who abandons his family. I believe this part may have been influenced by modern statistics regarding the number of single parent households headed by black females.
It’s a tactic in the story that has some readers (like me) cringing. Couple it with the disappearing southern accent, and it’s starting to make the first chapter a less than enjoyable read. I’m wondering where the plot is, and a few pages in, it finally appears.
It happens when Hilly Holbrook, another bridge player arrives. Aibileen overhears Hilly state this:
“But the guest bathroom’s where the help goes.” And she asks, “Wouldn’t you rather them take their business outside?”
And so over a bridge game and in another woman’s home, Hilly is able to convince Elizabeth Leefolt to built an outhouse for the black help to use.
In the first chapter the roles are firmly established. Hilly, with her blunt statements and iron willed command over all the others is the villain (and I love a good villain). Skeeter, the friendly protagonist hardly says another word during bathroomgate, especially when her innocent joke about the separate bathroom is coldly addressed.
“Maybe we ought to just build you a bathroom outside, Hilly.”
With an ominous warning Hilly replies (as Aibileen relays it):
“I don’t think you ought to be joking around about the colored situation. Not if you want to stay on as editor of the League, Skeeter Phelan.”
Incredulous at this threat, Skeeter asks with a forced laugh if Hilly would really kick her out for disagreeing.
And Hilly, villain that she is replies. “I will do whatever I have to do to protect our town.”
After no backup from the other members of the bridge party, Miss Leefolt and Hilly’s mother Miss Walters, Skeeter is a forlorn figure standing in Miss Leefolt’s kitchen after everyone else has left. She strikes up a conversation with Aibileen, reminiscing about a former maid named Constantine, and then asks Aibileen, “Do you ever wish you could change things?”
And Aibileen thinks to herself:
I look at her head-on. Cause that’s one a the stupiest questions I ever heard. She got a confused, disgusted look on her face, like she done salted her coffee instead of sugared it.
(This was at the height of the civil rights movement but its written as if Aibileen cannot give a one word answer on the matter, even to someone as friendly as Skeeter. The March on Washington occurred in 1963. This novel is set in 1962. Having a liberal like Skeeter as an ally was not uncommon back then, even in the south. And I wondered why, after all the bridge games, someone as non-threatening but obviously sympathetic as Skeeter would be viewed with such distrust)
Skeeter presses on, wanting to discuss Hilly’s suggestion about the separate bathroom but Miss Leefolt interrupts their conversation.
Skeeter leaves, and Miss Leefolt gets suspicious about their conversation. But Aibileen lies, telling her that Skeeter was only asking about some old clothes.
And the reader is left wondering how someone like Skeeter could possibly want to ever play bridge again with the likes of Miss Leefolt, Miss Walters, and worst of all, Hilly. But with the introduction of most of the characters, the chapter made me want to read further.
The chapter’s strengths:
Introduction of many of the major characters early on.
Generally likeable protags in Aibileen, Skeeter, Mae Mobley and even Hilly, because I wanted to know just how wicked she could be.
Overdoing Aibileen’s non-command of the english language. And while there’s no bible on “How to effectively write a period piece using black people,” by studying other writers (both black and white) from that time period the errors in dialect/vernacular could have been limited.
In the first chapter alone, the author touches on several biases that continually dog the African American community in some popular movies and literature, like poor language skills, a disappearing mate- usually male- and an inability to stay up on current events (I still don’t get why Aibileen isn’t too keen to talk about the rising chorus of individuals, both black and white who are demanding equality. I’m pretty sure the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NCAAP had chapters in Mississippi).