Skeeter is driving her mother’s Cadillac too fast on a gravel road, but she does not care that she is damaging the car as she thinks about what Hilly said to her today during bridge club. She, Elizabeth, and Hilly have been friends since elementary school, and they were close. At Ole Miss, she and Hilly were roommates until Hilly left to get married. But today Hilly threatened to kick Skeeter out of the League. Skeeter does not care so much about the League; she is hurt because her friend is willing to cast her aside so easily.
Skeeter pulls into the lane of Longleaf, her family’s cotton plantation, and slows down so her mother will not see how fast she has been driving. When she goes inside, the conversation between Eugenia (Skeeter) and her mother is typical: all of Eugenia’s friends from college have jobs and husbands but she has neither—and her dress is dirty. Telling her mother she wants to be a writer will only bring on more of the same, so Skeeter does not tell her; nor does she tell her about the boy in college who broke her heart. One time when Skeeter told her mother she wanted to use some of her trust fund money to get her own apartment, her mother had cried “real tears” and took to her bed. Now her mother is looking at her as if she does not understand a thing about her. When her mother begins once again to talk about how to find a husband, Skeeter kicks off her shoes and walks out the front door—her mother’s warnings about ringworm and mosquito encephalitis wafting behind her. She has been here for the three months since graduation, and she feels as if she is in a place where she no longer belongs.
Her older brother nicknamed her “Skeeter” when she was born because she looked like a mosquito with her long legs and skinny body. Her mother has spent her entire life trying to convince people to call her Eugenia—without success. “Mrs. Charlotte Boudreau Cantrelle Phelan does not like nicknames.” In her teen years, Skeeter was tall—too tall, according to her petite mother. The five-foot-eleven girl has a twenty-five thousand dollar trust fund (from cotton) to entice men who are more concerned about money than beauty.
Skeeter’s childhood attic room is adorned like a white wedding cake, and it is still her sanctuary. The only thing she never liked about her room was that the slanted stairs were a separation between her and Constantine. Skeeter has the newspaper spread out on her bed and is checking the help wanted ads. She has aspirations of writing “something people would actually read,” and she even applied once for a job at a major publishing house. The only jobs listed in the female help wanted ads are for a salesgirl, a junior secretary, and a junior stenographer; when she looks in the male help wanted ads, she sees four columns of job openings.
Pascagoula is the maid at Longleaf, a tiny black woman with curly hair and a white uniform. She calls Skeeter to the phone and tells her Miss Hilly would like to talk to her. Skeeter is relieved to find that Hilly has forgotten their argument as she invites Skeeter to double date with them and William’s cousin. Skeeter sighs because they have tried this twice before and both times the date was canceled; she hopes it will be canceled again. Hilly adds that she has notes to give her for the next League newsletter regarding what she...
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calls the Home Help Sanitation Initiative. This idea, that every home should have a separate bathroom for their black help, was the cause of their disagreement at bridge club several days before. Skeeter is the publication’s editor but Hilly is the president of the League and is trying to tell Skeeter what to print. She tells Hilly she does not know if there is room (which is a lie) as she looks over at Constantine’s tiny bathroom off the kitchen, a room she has never been in because she would have been punished for doing so. Hilly tells her to make room.
Constantine lived about a mile from Longleaf in a small Negro neighborhood. Sometimes Skeeter’s mother would let her go home with the maid on Friday afternoons. Everything seemed worlds away from Skeeter’s plantation home. She remembers the only photograph in Constantine’s house, a white girl whom she “looked after” for twenty years. Skeeter was always jealous that the maid did not have a picture of her anywhere. Her father would come pick her up an hour or so later, and he always gave Constantine a dollar and warned his daughter not to tell her mother that he gave their maid anything extra. This the only secret she and her father ever shared.
When one of her brother’s friends called her ugly at the age of thirteen, Skeeter turned to Constantine for comfort. Her advice to the girl was simple: every day a person is alive, he has to make the decision whether to believe what “the fools” say about him today. All her life she had been told what to believe about everything; this tall, broad-shouldered maid made her realize she had choices about what she could believe. Eugenia (for Constantine was the only one who obeyed Mrs. Phelan’s wishes and did not call her by her nickname) learned many things about life from Constantine. Mostly she learned to stay in the kitchen with the woman she adored.
Summers at Longleaf were long for Skeeter growing up, for she was isolated by distance from her friends and had no white neighbors. She only got to spend time with Hilly and Elizabeth occasionally, so Constantine was her closest companion. Skeeter began smoking cigarettes at the age of fourteen without permission, and Constantine was complicit in hiding it from Mrs. Phelan. Skeeter found it “delicious to have someone to keep secrets with.” Although Skeeter was teased about being so tall, she had to look up to meet Constantine’s eyes. Constantine’s eyes always spoke to Skeeter, saying, “You are fine with me.”
When she was fourteen, Skeeter discovered that her maid had a white father. She knew he could not have been married to Constantine’s mother because interracial marriage was against the law in Mississippi. He loved her very much and told his daughter once, with tears in his eyes, that he wished things could be different. When Skeeter left for college, she was thrilled and relieved to get away from Longleaf and her mother, but she maintained a faithful correspondence with Constantine while she was away. About a month before graduation, Skeeter got a letter from her that said she had a surprise for her when she got home, that she was so excited about it she could hardly wait, and Skeeter would have to see it for herself when she came home. This was her last letter from Constantine.
When Skeeter came back home, her mother simply told her Constantine was gone, that she went to “live with her people” in Chicago. When Skeeter tried to question her, Mrs. Phelan simply said she had forbidden the maid to write her about leaving because she did not want to distract Skeeter from her finals—and introduced her to Pascagoula. Skeeter knows the story is not true, but she has asked everyone she can think of and no one will tell her anything. Now it is September, and the house feels “vast, empty.” She has lost all hope of getting a publishing job or of finding her friend Constantine. Her only ally in this house is gone.