The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

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Chapter 11 Summary

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Miss Skeeter

While most of the world is still in the throes of winter, the first signs of spring are appearing in Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter is dressed in black and has a black scarf draped over her head. Tonight she is meeting Aibileen for their first interview, but she tells her mother she is meeting friends from church. This meeting has been delayed for a month. First the holidays kept Aibileen busy doing all of Elizabeth’s Christmas preparations, and then Aibileen got the flu. Skeeter is afraid Elaine Stein will have lost interest or forgotten her offer to read her work.

After parking in front of an abandoned house three houses away from Aibileen’s, Skeeter walks quickly to her front porch and is quickly admitted. Skeeter has never seen Aibileen in anything but her white uniform, and she notices that the woman looks nice and seems to stand a little taller here in her own home. As Aibileen goes to get some tea and cookies, Skeeter notices the curtains have been pulled together and pinned closed so there is no gap. As they settle in for the interview, Aibileen is nervous and says she has never had a white woman in her house. Skeeter wonders what would happen if a white person discovered she was here talking to a black maid not in uniform. She is suddenly aware that she would probably be arrested and charged with “integration violation,” of helping further the civil rights movement. They are both nervous when they hear a crowd walk by outside.

Her questions seem “obvious, amateur” all of a sudden, but Skeeter asks them anyway. She discovers Aibileen was born in 1909 on Piedmont Plantation in Cherokee County, and she knew she would be a maid because her mother was a maid and her grandmother was a house slave. The best part of her job is taking care of her children. Aibileen answers but does not elaborate. Suddenly Aibileen gets up, apologizes, and walks quickly down the hall. She closes the door and the teapot and cups rattle on the tray. When she returns, it is clear she has vomited; she explains she thought she was ready to talk but no longer thinks she can do it. Skeeter is angry at herself for thinking Aibileen would stop feeling like a maid just because they met at her house and she was not wearing her uniform.

Four days later, Skeeter goes to a gathering at Hilly’s house. She has heard nothing from Aibileen since their disastrous interview; she tried to call her twice but got no answer. Hilly, Elizabeth, and Lou Anne Templeton (who has taken Mrs. Walters’ place) are looking at a magazine spread of a modern living room and den, the kind of room Elizabeth saw firsthand when she went to visit her sister in Hollywood for a few days. Hilly, who has an eight-foot-tall portrait of a Confederate general hanging in her parlor, tells Elizabeth she is the sister with the best taste. Elizabeth gives Skeeter a piece of paper from Aibileen, a message for the Miss Myrna columns. It says, “I know how to keep the teapot from rattling.” Elizabeth (who has read the message) wonders why anyone would care about such a thing. After a few seconds, Skeeter understands what Aibileen is trying to say. She tells Elizabeth she would not believe how difficult such a thing could be.

Two days later, Skeeter is lugging her fifty-pound typewriter at eight o’clock at night, trying to be discreet as she goes to Aibileen’s house. She tries to act confident that this will work despite Aibileen’s plan. She asks if they can sit at the kitchen table, and when Aibileen offers to make tea, Skeeter says she brought them both Co-Colas (figuring it will help if Aibileen does not feel as if she must serve her). When she sees Skeeter drinking hers straight from the bottle, Aibileen feels free to do the same. It is a much better start than last time.

When Skeeter called Aibileen after receiving her note, the older woman explained her plan—she would write her experiences in her own words and Skeeter could see what she wrote. Skeeter tries to act excited, but she is confident this is going to waste time as she will probably have to rewrite everything. She thinks seeing her words typed on a page might be easier for Aibileen, but she is still afraid none of these measures will work. When they talked about this earlier in the week, the maid explained that she is quite used to writing because she writes her prayers; sometimes she writes for several hours a night. Skeeter is not convinced that just writing often will make one an effective writer.

Aibileen begins reading what she has written in a slow, clear, rhythmical voice as Skeeter types what she hears. The colored woman talks about the first baby she ever cared for, at the age of fifteen, and backtracks to her first job cleaning silver at the age of thirteen. She explains that shame is not black, like dirt; shame is the color of a new white uniform (paid for by her mother’s ironing all night) without a “smudge or a speck a work-dirt on it.” The stories are well written.

Aibileen stops to see what Skeeter thinks of her writing, and Skeeter stops typing. The journalist had expected the stories to be “sweet, glossy”; she never imagined this is what she would get. Aibileen continues her storytelling. Alton, the little white boy she helped raise after his mother died, cut his fingers “clean off” in a window fan she had begged her employers many times to remove. She grabbed the boy and his four fingers and took him to the Negro hospital because she had no idea where the white hospital was. (Skeeter is typing furiously, heedless of her mistakes, just to keep up with the story.) The hospital staff told her she better say the boy is her high yellow son, for the Negro doctor would not operate on a white boy in a Negro hospital. Then a white policeman grabbed her and said, “Now you look a here—“ and then Aibileen is quiet. Skeeter asks what he said next, but Aibileen says she had to quit writing this morning because she had to leave to take the bus. The two women look at each other directly in the eye, and Skeeter thinks this might just work.

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