“The Help”: Memories Awakened by Kathryn Stockett’s Novel

I seldom read novels, but I was persuaded to pick up Kathryn Stockett’s  The Help (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009) and give it a go, when it was highly recommended by a friend whose opinion I trust.  Also, I lived in the South, in Lynchburg, Virginia during the 1960s, the period in which the novel is set.  I have lived the past eighteen years in the Jackson, Mississippi metro area, and taught at a private college located in the Belhaven neighborhood, also the geographic setting of the novel.

I can remember those turbulent days of the Civil Rights struggle, but from the skewed perspective of one who was, as we would say in those days, “free, white and twenty-one.”  Those were some of the “good old days” for me.  I could eat in any restaurant I could afford, which were few. I could attend a movie theater and sit wherever I wished.  Of course, there were places that even some of us “whites” could not go, unless we were of the right socio-economic class.  In Virginia it helped if you were related to one of the patriarchal families, for example, Jefferson, Lee, Byrd, or Glass.

Thomas Jefferson’s summer home, Poplar Forest, is located within the current city limits of Lynchburg.  It was a private residence during the sixties.  Today, it is a tourist attraction. 

Lynchburg was also the home of Senator Carter Glass, co-sponsor of the Glass-Owen Act (1913) that created the Federal Reserve System, and the Glass-Steagall Act (1933) that created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  “Mountview,” commonly referred to as the “Carter Glass Mansion,” was located just outside the city limits on a hill overlooking the Norfolk and Western railroad line.  During the years that Senator Glass served in Washington, DC, the train would make a special stop at Mountview to pick up or return the senator.

Glass bought the Lynchburg News for $13,000 in 1887.  He paid $100 down on the purchase.  Only twenty-three years old at the time, within a couple years he purchased the two competing newspapers, thus becoming the sole newspaper publisher in Lynchburg.

As I recall, the Glass family still owned the newspapers in the sixties.  The Lynchburg News appeared in the morning and the Daily Advance in the afternoon.  My older brother worked as a part-time proof reader while attending Lynchburg College.  In addition to correcting misspelled words, he told me that he was instructed to remove the courtesy titles—Mr., Mrs., and Miss—from the names of known “colored” people.

During my tenure as a student at Lynchburg College, also during the mid-sixties, I worked as a clerk in a department store downtown.  I remember an elderly lady who had a habit of shopping there.  Whenever she entered the shoe department in which I worked, I was the one who had to serve her.  No one else could stand to wait on her.

Mrs. “B,” was a cousin of Senator Harry Flood Byrd.  The “Byrd Machine” controlled politics in Virginia from the mid-1920s to the late 1960s. Mrs. B never passed up an opportunity to point out that she was related to the senator every Virginian either loved or feared.

I sort of inherited her one afternoon, when Mr. Martin, the department head, tried to fit her with a pair of shoes.  She tried on a number of pairs before finding a style she liked.  Unfortunately, we did not have her size.  Trying to explain why he could not produce the pair she wanted, Mr. Martin commented on the fact that her feet were a rather “average” size, and hence a popular size. 

Mrs. B suddenly became very angry.  “I want you to know,” she announced loudly and forcefully, “I am NOT average!” 

The customer is always right, even when the customer is wrong.  Mr. Martin remained polite, but swore that he would never wait on her again.  Henceforth, if I was working when Mrs. B came in, I had the privilege of waiting on her.

I knew how to handle her, and others like her.  Patience and a smile was my secret.  I would listen politely as she told me stories about what life was like on the plantation when she was a little girl.  Judging from the fact that she must have been in her seventies, at least, that was an era that only the planter aristocracy would look back on with nostalgia.  But I would listen, and I would smile, and she adored me for it.  I adapted to my environment as a clerk in a department store, much as a maid adapted to the domestic environment in which she worked.

I remember in particular one story Mrs. B told me of a visit from a lady “from up North.”  As Mrs. B and her husband were driving their visitor through the beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, their guest commented on a “colored lady” she noticed along the road. 

Mrs. B looked me straight in the eye.  Her face became very serious, almost scary.  “I told her,” she said shaking her finger in my face, “that is NOT a lady!  That is a N****R!”

There were, no doubt, many people like Mrs. B.  But, there were many who were not like her.  Many who grew up under segregation took it for granted as part of the natural order of society.  Many, black and white, observed the color line without animosity towards one another.  That people could be content with such an injustice is sad, but unfortunately true.

Mr. Hunt, an older gentleman who also worked part-time in the shoe department, pointed out to me the obvious contradiction in segregation.  He came from a family of ten children.  His father owned a general store in a rural area.  The store sold everything a person needed in life, and upstairs above the general store was a funeral parlor, also operated by Mr. Hunt’s father.

Mr. Hunt said that his parents kept an African-American wet nurse in the home as long as there was an infant present.  He and his siblings were raised, as he said, by “colored nannies.” How could a person who was raised by an African-American nanny and even nursed by one, Mr. Hunt asked, consider himself superior?  That is the very question Ms. Stockett explores in her novel The Help.

Ms. Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi.  Educated at the University of Alabama, she spent nine years in New York City—a different universe compared to Jackson, Mississippi—before settling down in Atlanta.  Her novel draws heavily on her experiences growing up in Jackson during the 1970s, a time when blacks and whites were still, as Ms. Stockett recalls, “staunchly separated.”

The delicate and very complex relationship between whites and blacks is explored through the eyes and voices of three individuals,  Miss Eugenia Phelan, or “Miss Skeeter,” and two African-American maids, Aibileen and Minny.  Miss Skeeter returns to home to Jackson after graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1962.  Upon arrival home, she discovers that the beloved African-American nanny who raised her, and whom she loved, has been dismissed from service by her mother.  No one will say anything about why Constantine was dismissed, or what has become of her.

In her search for answers, Miss Sketter is forced to confront the reality of the world in which she grew up, but never really knew.  Aibileen and Minny become her guides, and friends, as she begins to see how the “other half” live.  It takes time to win the trust of the two maids and other members of the underclass of domestic servants.

As Miss Sketter’s eyes are opened, she is determined to write a book about the outwardly tranquil world of segregated bourgeois Jackson.  She wants the ladies whose lives are made comfortable by their maids to see and feel what it is like to be the ever loyal, ever quiet, ever smiling servant living a life that is a lie.   

The Help could just as easily have been set in early twentieth-century England.  A life “in service,” as the English described domestic service, was in many ways similar to a life of domestic service in the “Old South.”  The popular BBC television series “Upstairs Downstairs” (1971-1975) provided insight into the real world behind the outward glamour and pretense of Edwardian England.

Both worlds are now a part of social history, but the further we are in time from the world of formal segregation, and the fewer voices there are of those who experienced that world, the more we are in danger of viewing it in a purely nostalgic fashion.  Ms Stockett’s novel, although fiction, will help us keep a balance between life as we would like to remember it, and life as it really was during those turbulent and exciting years of the 1960s.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

For further insight into the connection between the novel and Ms. Stockett’s own life experiences, see her article “This Life:  Kathryn Stockett on her childhood in the Deep South” online at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1199603/This-Life-Kathryn-Stockett-childhood-Deep-South.html

A trailer for the movie based on the novel can be found online at http://collider.com/the-help-movie-trailer/86182/

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