Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Review: The Help [2009]

Kathryn Stockett's first novel, The Help, was the sleeper hit of 2009, and still occupies the number two spot on the best-seller lists for hardcover fiction. It still has at least a two-to-one holds ratio in our library system, and it has also been the source of some controversy. Set in Jackson, Mississippi beginning in 1962, the novel revolves around the lives of three characters: one privileged white woman and two black maids. Naive Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan has just graduated from Ole Miss and wants to be a writer, but so far has only managed to get a job writing the housekeeping column for the local newspaper under an assumed name. Since she doesn't know anything about keeping house, she asks her friend Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen, for assistance, leading to a deeper acquaintance than customary between a white lady and "the help." Aibileen is an older woman who has raised many white children and been deeply wounded each time they grow up to be just like their parents. Aibileen's friend, Minny, is an outspoken maid who manages to get herself fired and earn the enmity of Junior League President Hilly Holbrook at the beginning of the book. Hilly is the undisputed villain of the piece (well, other than the institutionalized racism that she personifies), from her proposal that all white families install separate bathrooms for their help in order to keep free of "colored diseases" to accusing Minny, and then Aibileen, of theft, to her tyrannical rule of what seems to be all of Jackson society. She may, in fact, be a little too irredeemably evil, but she is a character that everyone should love to hate. Despite Hilly's ever-watchful eye, Skeeter and Aibileen embark on a project to publish real stories from the maids of Jackson, including the ugly truth about the white women who employ them. They struggle to find interviewees (beyond the initially reluctant Minny) for a task that could easily get its black participants fired, or much worse; a palpable sense of danger hangs over much of the novel, set as it is in a time of civil unrest. However, at its heart The Help is an uplifting and ultimately optimistic story about how we aren't that different after all.

Grade: A-

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.

Random Thoughts:

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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Amanda said...

Omg, Jackson is one of my fave songs!

Also, darlin, this was a very witty review. :-)

Kelly J. said...

I like your review a lot here. I haven't gotten to the benefits scene yet, but I suspect my feelings will be similar (as I am agreeing with you on many of your points here). I'm at chapter 21 or 22, I believe.

As for the controversy, interesting to hear she inserted Skeeter since she felt readers wouldn't believe her. I think it'd be interesting if we had never seen a photo of Ms. Stockett if we would have even raised the issue at all...We've come far and not far all at once.

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