Chapter 21 Summary
A cooling unit has finally been installed at Longleaf. It is located in the relaxing room, and it is there because the doctor recommended it. Skeeter’s mother is tired all the time and her ulcers are getting worse; the doctor says keeping her cool would at least make her more comfortable. Skeeter has not told her parents that Stuart broke up with her, and she longs for some relief from the heat to cool her “singed and hurt” heart.
The feel of the cool air is glorious, and all three of the Phelans stand and enjoy the new contraption. Skeeter’s father turns the knob to “3,” the highest setting on the unit. It runs for a moment and then everything goes black. It blows the current. An hour later, after he repairs it, Mr. Phelan says there is only one rule with the new machine: never turn the knob to “3.” Once her parents are sleeping, Skeeter creeps around the house turning off everything that uses electricity except the refrigerator. She stands in front of the air cooling unit with her blouse unbuttoned and turns it up to “3” because she longs to feel nothing, “to be frozen inside.” She wants the icy air to freeze her heart. In about three seconds, the power blows.
Skeeter spends the next few weeks immersed in interviews. She types all day and late into the night, and the women’s stories allow her to escape her own miserable life. Her mother is anxious to have the Whitworths over for dinner, but it is clear she is getting thinner and weaker all the time and Skeeter does not want to tell her about Stuart. She simply says he has been out of town. It is still hot, and even Pascagoula finds reasons to be in the relaxing room where it is cooler. When her mother says she is free on the twenty-fifth, Skeeter tells her she will check with the Whitworths. She continues the charade because her mother seems so frail and in so much pain.
The manuscript is sitting on Aibileen’s table; it is an inch thick, and it is beginning to look like a book. It is nearly August and there is a lot of work yet to do before January, but Skeeter is finished with five chapters, including Minny’s and Aibileen’s. The names have all been changed and the stories are set in the fictional city of Niceville in the very real (and racially divided) state of Mississippi. Aibileen asks if Skeeter thinks it will get published. She responds with false confidence and says Elaine Stein did seem interested and the march will be happening soon. Skeeter has no idea if the book will ever get published, but she is well aware that the responsibility for the project is hers alone.
She can see in the faces of the women she interviews that they are counting on her to tell their stories, to be their voice. The risk they are taking is evidence of their desire to be heard. Skeeter knows she is now a threat to every white family in town. Although many of the stories are positive and celebratory of family and love, the bad stories will inflame the anger of the white women—and they will fight back. They must all keep this “a perfect secret.”
Skeeter deliberately arrives five minutes late to the League meeting. The meeting drags on for two hours. Skeeter sees seven women in the room who are related to characters or are themselves characters in the book, and she wants to escape before she has to talk to anyone. Elizabeth sees her; she has not seen her friend in some time, so Skeeter stops to visit. Elizabeth is six months pregnant and miserable in every way. Quietly, Elizabeth says...
(The entire section is 971 words.)