Aibileen is my favorite character in the best-selling novel, The Help, because she is a high IQ single mother who loves writing and succeeds in it against dire odds. She may even be able to help her son, Treelor, achieve his literary ambitions posthumously.
Author Kathryn Stockett starts off by leading the reader to think Aibileen is something else completely. However, the very powerful underlying theme of liberty and its close ties to literacy breaks through.
In The Help, a black maid (Aibileen) in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1970’s, gives a first-person account in authentic dialect of cleaning, cooking, raising her bosses’ baby, ironing, sewing, buying the groceries (in a white people’s store, but only if she wears her uniform), organizing the household chores, being unobtrusive, being invisible, being pleasant and saying “Yes, m’am”.
Her son, Treelor, had died in his 20‘s from a workplace accident caused by another person’s negligence with machinery.
They used to have a good time when they had a moment together at the kitchen table and played a word game she had invented for him. She gave him a phrase of two words and he had to reply right away with two superior words meaning the same thing. One day she threw the word Crisco at him and he couldn’t think of a reply, so they laughingly decided to call the husband and father who had deserted them that. (How did a metaphor get in here? I thought.)
At church the black people could let go and express themselves freely and Aibileen became famous for her prayer book. Her schoolteacher had long ago urged her to write but the only way she could find time was to write her prayers down instead of saying them to God.
Skeeter, a bridge-playing friend of Aibileen’s boss, is the agent of change. She gets a contract with a New York publishing house to write a household advice column and this sets up a very unusual dynamic between a white person and a black one. You will want to buy The Help, or else see the movie, to find out where this leads. For one thing, Skeeter takes books out of the white people’s library, since blacks aren’t allowed to go there, and smuggles them to her.
Stockett goes on to describe how a book was written in a co-operative, undercover, dangerous manner as a grand step towards waking people up to the Jim Crow mentality which still plagues the United States. The Help is a work of fiction but is also an inspiring “how-to” manual for the whole world in these restive times.