The Help, By Kathryn Stockett

Pantomime and prejudice

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Kathryn Stockett's debut novel – which has already been turned into a saccharine Hollywood movie – explores the relationship between white middle-class women and their black domestic "help" in 1960s Mississippi.

Stockett alternates between three narrators – the maids Aibileen and Minny, and an idealistic white journalist known as Skeeter – as they work on a book of interviews exposing the callous prejudice of the state capital's housewives, thereby doing their bit for the gathering civil rights struggle.

Stockett is white, and so is walking a very fine line in adopting the idiomatic vernacular of a black housekeeper. There have been accusations of racism from some quarters. I'm not sure about that. She is, at least, sufficiently self-aware to have Aibileen comment derisively that "white people been representing colored opinions since the beginning a time".

If anything, I find Stockett's treatment of the white employers more troubling. They come across as pantomime villains: their ringleader, Hilly Holbrook, is an odious racist with the primped veneer of a Stepford wife. The problem with such simplistic characterisation is that it puts the reader in too comfortable a position. We boo and hiss at Hilly, and cheer when she gets her comeuppance, all the better to reinforce our complacent sense of superiority – and to avoid thinking too deeply about how we might have behaved, had we grown up on the privileged side of the Jim Crow South.

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