Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

A fantastic book that came my way by chance (the vagaries of choosing a title in a reading group to be precise...) The Help tells the story of three women in Civil Rights era Mississippi, two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, and local college girl Miss Skeeter.

What brings these women together is an idea that Skeeter has for a book, a factual report of what life is like in Jackson MS for black women working for the rich white ladies in the city. Initially reluctant and always fearing reprisal, the maids slowly tell Skeeter their stories and the book is written.

Stockett’s extremely moving and powerful novel flips between the three main characters, each of whom have more than their fair share of problems. Of the three, I found myself enjoying the chapters about Minny the most. A woman whose sassy tongue has lost her several jobs, her attitude to drink (hence the inclusion in 120 Units) is forthright. Thinking that she has discovered her new boss, Miss Celia, drinking shined whiskey in her bedroom, Minny boils over into a rage:

She’s sitting on the yellow twin bed by the window and she’s not smiling. The package I toted in from the mailbox is open sand on the bed are a dozen bottles filled with brown liquid. It’s a slow burn that rises up my bosoms, my chin, my mouth. I know the look of those flat bottles. I nursed a worthless pint drinker for twelve years and when my lazy, life sucking daddy finally died, I swore to God with tears I my eyes I’d never marry one. And then I did. And now here I am nursing another goddam drinker. These aren’t even store-bought bottles, these have a red wax top like my Uncle Toad used to cap his moonshine with. Mama always told me the real alcoholics, like my daddy, drink the homemade stuff because it’s stronger. Now I know she’s as much a fool as my daddy was and as Leroy is when he gets on the Old Crow, only she doesn’t chase me with the frying pan. Miss Celia picks a bottle up and looks at it like it’s Jesus in there and she can’t wait to get saved. She uncorks it, sips it and sighs. The she drinks three hard swallows and lays back on her fancy pillows.

Worse still, it’s a case of mistaken identity – the bottles of brown liquid are a quack remedy that Celia has mailed off for in an attempt to ward off another miscarriage, sadly unsuccessfully. She does, however, make up for things on the booze front later on in the book. Come the society annual dinner that Celia is desperate to go to, she starts early:

“Miss Celia, now what is going on in here?” I mean, she’s got stockings dangling from chairs, pocketbooks on the floor, enough costume jewelry for a whole family of hookers, forty-five pairs of high-heel shoes, underthings, overcoats, panties, brassieres, and a half-empty bottle of white wine on the chifforobe with no coaster under it.

In fact, by the time she gets there she’s drunk as a Injun on payday:

Celia grabs for Johnny’s arm as they make their way into the room. She teeters a bit as she walks, but it’s not clear if it’s from the alcohol or the high heels... Johnny squeezes her hand, gets her another drink from the bar, her fifth, although he doesn’t know this.

Determined to fit in and make a good impression with the snooty queen bee, Hilly, Celia does everything wrong, from turning up half cut in a ghastly pink dress (Minny’s account of this is worth picking up the book for alone) to trying to corner Hilly and ask her why she won’t talk to her. Johnny runs into a friend and more drinks are procured:

Celia lets out a loud hiccup and she frowns, covers her mouth with a tissue. “You getting tipsy?” asks Johnny. “She’s just having fun, aren’t you, Celia?” Richard says. “In fact, I’m fixing to get you a drink you’re gonna love. It’s called an Alabama Slammer.” Johnny rolls his eyes at his friend. “And then we’re going home.” Three Alabama Slammers later...

Which is when Celia manages to get Hilly alone for a moment and disaster strikes. Not only does she managed to tear the cuff off Hilly’s dress, the combination of wine and Alabama Slammers finally catches up with Celia’s beleagaured digestion causing the dreaded anti-peristalsis and she parks a leopard in the middle of the party:

Celia stops, looks around like she recognises no one around her. She has tears in her eyes. Then she groans and convulses. Vomit spatters onto the carpet.

Needless to say, the subsequent hangover lasts for several days...

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