Thoughts on The Help

Aug 28 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

My family moved to Houston, Texas, in 1963 when I was 2-years-old. My mother made our home her job. My little brother joined us shortly after we moved, and her days consisted of children, meals, and house cleaning. Many of the women in the neighborhood were appalled, but not because she made the home her sole domain and interest. No, it seems she was doing work that white women were not supposed to do. The line lay in different spots for different women, but no white neighbor, no matter how poor, cleaned her own floors. It just wasn't done.

I remembered my mom's stories (we left Texas when I was 5) while I read The Help last week. The  novel debuted in 2009, and the inevitable movie premiered a few weeks back. The author, Kathryn Stockett, has been criticized for writing from the viewpoint (and attempting the dialect) of the African American housekeepers, but these criticisms seem petty to me. Of course, as a white woman, I cannot speak to the ultimate truth of these stories; however, they fit with a lot of my mother's stories from the same time period. I wonder how much has changed since my childhood, when these privileged women in Mississippi paid their help less than minimum wage and demanded that they use separate bathrooms in their homes.

When I had my daughter in Chicago, in 1987, friends and acquaintances suggested we go the least expensive route: the illegal Polish nanny. Women from Poland and other countries on tourist visas became nannies and sent money home, usually for half the price of a daycare center or licensed home. We did not pursue this avenue for a variety of reasons, but many of our colleagues did.

The bottom line seems to be that housekeeping and childrearing remain undervalued. These chores require no specialized training, but they remain essential to our lives. Yet when we choose to pay for them, we want to part with less cash than we pay for fast food.

I have not caught the movie yet, but I recommend the book for some summer reading with teeth.

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