Even though it has a great story, the book is perhaps a little too self-conscious about its historical time-period (you can practically hear the signposts being printed in caps lock, like a telegram: MEDGAR EVERS-(STOP)-WOOLWORTH'S COUNTER-(STOP)-MARCH ON WASHINGTON-(STOP)-KENNEDY ASSASSINATION-(STOP)-BOB DYLAN). However, within this broader context there are many small, moving, and weighty moments that make that aspect of Stockett's writing, which I guess I would call obvious contextualizing, negligible.
Now, about the "controversy" that surrounded the book, I must of course say a few words. See reviews here and here that discuss Stockett's use of heavy dialect for her black characters. In this interview, Stockett seems genuinely humble about her attempt to recreate the voices of black women in the 1960s. She actually indicated that she added the character of Skeeter "because she worried that readers wouldn’t trust her if she only wrote about black characters. 'I just didn’t think that would ever be allowed to sit on the shelf,' she said. 'So I threw Skeeter in the mix and I felt a little better about it, because I was showing a white perspective as well.'" HUH? When you're reading the book, it sometimes feels like Skeeter is a less developed and less rich character, and now that makes sense. But we have to ask ourselves why an author felt like she would be crossing such a huge line by writing solely with the voices of black women. If authors only wrote about what they knew first-hand, the selection of books would be pretty uninteresting. Are women not supposed to write from the perspective of male characters, and vice versa? Can straight authors accurately represent the thoughts and feelings of queer characters, or not? Should Stephenie Meyer have confined herself to writing about normal teenagers, because she isn't actually a vampire or a werewolf (hang on a sec, maybe that would actually be a good thing . . . Twilight crazies, I'm kidding! Please don't spam me.)? In a similar vein, if Stockett had chosen not to write Aibileen and Minny's parts using dialect, would their sections of the novel have felt as vibrant? You can't write a romance novel set in Scotland without throwing in some Scottish dialect (even if you're an American). I did, however, agree with the Christian Science Monitor, which wondered why none of the white characters were written with a similarly distinct dialect. My favorite review was actually William Boot's "Do I Have to Read The Help?" (answer: yes):
My only problem with The Help is that, in the end, it’s not really about the help. For all her assurance in sketching out the foibles of the Junior League, Stockett is shakier when it comes to the maids. They never quite come into focus—they’re more useful for what they see rather than who they are.I'm not sure I entirely agree with him, but perhaps if Stockett hadn't felt the pressure to include a white character in order to get her book "on the shelf," that wouldn't have been the case. In my opinion, the book is stronger because it has both white and black characters, and both perspectives are fully explored.
A friend of mine (whose taste in books I trust implicitly) recommended the book to me by handing me a paper copy, but things being as they always are, I didn't have time to read it before I felt like I'd probably better release that one back out into the wild. As I often do, I ended up listening to the audio version instead, which was narrated by one actress for each main role, as well as a narrator for the strangeness that is Chapter 25 (in which Stockett inserts an omniscient narrator for the first and last time). It's possible that my feelings about the dialect would be stronger if I had seen it on the page, rather than hearing it performed by the two excellent narrators for Aibileen and Minny. Of the three, the "Miss Skeeter" was definitely the weakest link, but I thought that was true of the character as well. The omniscient narrator of the benefit scene was terrible, and clearly had no idea how to speak with a southern accent. The unexpected upside(?) of listening to the book, rather than reading it, was an unconscious desire to adopt a faux-Southern accent.
I literally cannot read or hear the word "Jackson" without thinking about Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. At least it's a good song. I also found myself humming Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" on numerous occasions as I was getting out of the car.
Especially interesting in context: This article about a black writer's conference. I wonder, do black writers feel like Stockett is co-opting their narrative space? Most of the reviews I found were by white women (like me).
Dead Mother: No, which was actually a surprise
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