Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Help, a review, sort of

I finally got around to reading The Help this week. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past three years, the book is a best selling novel that describes the lives of African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s. The movie version came out last year; it received several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. I didn't see the movie or read the book before we left Atlanta -- my name hadn't reached the top of the waiting list at the library.

Turned out the book was worth reading. The quality of the writing is decent, especially for a first novel, and the story line overall holds a person's interest. It didn't contain any major surprises -- I knew that life in the segregated South was a bizarre sea of contradictions, with whites paying blacks to cook, clean, take care of kids, and nurse the elderly but at the same time insisting that blacks and whites couldn't possibly drink out from the same water fountain or use the same toilets. There's some major cognitive dissonance going on when you don't want your maid pissing in the same porcelain as you, but at the same time you're eating food prepared by the maid, sleeping on sheets she washed, and living in a house she's cleaned. The servant is too dirty and/or crawling with germs to use your toilet, but you're willing to eat the soup she's cooked?

In any case, all those contradictions have been well-documented many times and from multiple perspectives, both as fiction and as autobiography (e.g., Coming of Age in Mississippi). We all also know that Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s was full of bigots, and that it was a particularly perilous time and place for anyone black who gave any appearance of supporting the civil rights movement. The Help didn't break any new ground, although there was some hoopla over the audacity of a white author daring to write in the voice of a black maid. That controversy, such as it was, struck me as flatout stupid. If writers could only write from their personal perspective, that would mean male authors couldn't have female characters in novels, young authors couldn't have anyone elderly, black authors couldn't include white characters, and you could never set a novel in a time period other than the one in which you were currently living . . . the whole point of writing fiction is being able to imagine how the world looks from a perspective other than your own.

Anyway, The Help did resonate with me. I found myself remembering my summer in Chicago as exploited labor a mother's helper many years ago. The summer of the year I graduated from high school I responded to a Help Wanted ad in the local newspaper -- Chicago families tended to advertise for  live-in help in newspapers in the western Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin; middle class urbanites apparently still viewed the northwoods as being full of potential Scandihoovian maids fresh off the boat and ripe for working for shit wages -- and was hired by a family that I'll call, for convenience's sake, the Kaplans. The deal was, if I recall correctly, $25 a week plus room and board, with Sunday morning and one weekday off.

Working for the Kaplans was an education. I went into the experience fairly naive and emerged as a nascent Marxist. It wasn't that I'd never had a job before. I'd been working since I was 12, mostly stoop labor in the summer picking strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and cucumbers but with some other odd jobs tossed in. However, the Kaplans were my first experience with an employer who seemed to confuse employees with indentured servants. They didn't go quite so far as building a separate water closet for me in the carport like one of the families in The Help does for their maid, but they came close. (Mrs. Kaplan made it pretty clear my blue collar white ass had better not ever go anywhere near the plumbing in the master bedroom.)

The Kaplans lived in a renovated brownstone in a neighborhood north of the Loop that had been posh in about 1890, had hit the skids for awhile, and was on its way back up. If I had to categorize the family politically and socio-economically, I'd say they were upper middle class liberals. Mr. Kaplan made a comfortable income working at a white collar occupation, Mrs. Kaplan got to be a stay-at-home mom (except she never was at home), and they had the requisite 2.5 kids (a boy and a girl from Mrs. Kaplan's first marriage, and a toddler from the current relationship), and they paid lip service to progressive causes like civil rights and school integration. The family was technically Jewish but thoroughly secularized -- they didn't even have a mezuzah by the door. For sure, they never went to temple and the Sabbath was a day like any other. 

As the summer progressed, I felt sorrier and sorrier for the two older kids. The toddler had it the best -- she spent her days with me. We walked to the park, we hung out with the other mother's helpers and their charges, we played with the puppy (the family had recently gotten a standard poodle), and in general the kid got to be a kid. As for the older kids, it may have been summer vacation for everyone else, but not for them. Their mother had their lives scheduled down to the nanosecond: summer school, guitar lessons, piano lessons, tennis lessons, swimming lessons, you name it. They got to rush from lesson to lesson, and come home for their evening meal of Spaghetti-Os, and then get hustled off to bed. The kids lived on a diet of Franco-American and Chef Boyardee; the poodle got chopped sirloin. When the kids weren't being hustled from lesson to lesson, they were listening to their mother's little lectures guaranteed to put them in therapy by adolescence. The son was stupid, the older daughter was unattractive. One of Mrs. Kaplan's favorite lectures to her daughter involved the crying need for rhinoplasty to "fix that Jewish nose" as soon as she was old enough. What type of mother tells a 10-year-old she needs a nose job while simultaneously instilling shame about her ethnic and religious heritage? Then again, Mrs. Kaplan's goal in life seemed to be to turn herself into a shiksa, complete with bleached blonde hair. She'd already bought herself a perfect Hollywood starlet nose.

It didn't take me long to figure out I'd been snookered. The other mother's helpers and nannies enlightened me pretty quickly to the fact I was working for a lower wage than average. The Kaplans had given me a day off that didn't synchronize with the traditional maid's day off -- no doubt a small attempt at preventing me from hanging out with other maids and finding out just how much more money and/or better working conditions I'd enjoy elsewhere. Maybe they didn't realize just how much time there is for schmoozing while sitting around watching toddlers play in a sandbox. Turned out my employers had a reputation in the neighborhood. The maids who were permanent, year-round help told me the Kaplans had a nifty habit of hiring a live-in housekeeper/nanny to work September through May for about four times what the teenage summer help got paid and then firing that person as soon as they had someone like me lined up for the summer months. 

So, in retrospect, what's the take-away, the bottom line? I guess what it comes down to is that, everything else being equal, some people are always going to be assholes. In a way, I was a lot luckier than the maids in The Help. When you're a person of color, you can never be sure if you're being treated like shit because the boss is a bigot or if you're being treated like shit because the boss is an asshat who treats everyone that way.  In my case, it was pretty clear the Kaplans were just jerks who'd try to take advantage of anyone unfortunate enough to end up working for them. Back in the 1960s, they went trolling for naive farm girls to exploit; no doubt now they're paying an undocumented immigrant with a marginal grasp of English to walk the dog.


  1. I agree with your take on the book. I didn't find the complaining about black women being saved by a white girl valid either. If anything they saved her.

    I have not had the experience of being treated like that by an employer but I do agree that some people are jerks no matter what their background.

  2. Looking up, I see no rocks. Exploitation is colorblind, its all about greed, crassness and a lack of humanity.

  3. Never heard of it, read a lot about the Holt's (may be fictional) the last few years, interesting reading about folks that settled this country.


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