“The Help” by Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is one of those word-of-mouth bestsellers, that women friends recommend to their friends, then all the book groups are reading it, when it’s still in hardcover, no less. Doing so well, in fact, that the publisher is delaying the paperback. Other books that have had similar trajectories are Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society (which I quite enjoyed).

Don’t consult the cover if you want to know what it’s about; for that, see the UK version, deemed too controversial for American audiences. Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 60’s, chapters alternate first-person point of view between two domestic servants of white families, Aibileen and Minnie, and Skeeter, a white-woman friend of their employers. Reading this book made me profoundly uncomfortable. Not only does Stockett, a white woman raised by a domestic in the South, write from the first person, but she chooses to write in dialect for the black characters, but not for the white ones.

Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.

Stockett faces the same dilemma as her fictional counterpart, Skeeter, who interviews the maids in her town to detail the many injustices and cruelties of institutional racism in a southern US city. Stockett’s intention is good; she’s trying to conscientiously give voice to those who didn’t have it, and at the same time educate readers on the countless horrifying particulars of life during the time of Jim Crow laws. Her book is good. It’s a readable tale of a group of women who love and support one another, and who fight for justice in a violent and vicious environment.

In the end, though, there were few, if any, surprises for me. The plots unfolded predictably. Several of the mysteries, like Minnie’s “Terrible Awful,” the fate of Skeeter’s caregiver Constantine, and the secret of Minnie’s new boss, Miss Celia, were easy to guess, and were strung out so long they lost their power to shock, as they were meant to. Most of the characters were caricatures of ones I’ve seen too many times. Aibileen is the loving mammy. Minnie is the sassy maid. Her husband is the drunk wife beater. Miss Celia is the white-trash hottie who married up and whom all the other women envy. Skeeter is the conscience of the town. Her childhood friend, Hilly, is the villain.

Stockett does a decent job of making her white characters, like Hilly and Aibileen’s boss, Elizabeth, complex. Hilly is racist, yet she loves her children. Elizabeth neglects her daughter, yet lives in fear of Hilly and is in turn neglected by her husband. But the black characters for the most part are two-dimensional–all good, all hard working, all persecuted by their white employers.

I wish Stockett would have constructed her book and conveyed the truths within in a way that didn’t trespass so blatantly on the lesser social status of her subjects by trying to speak in their voices. In the book, Skeeter edits the maids’ stories, she doesn’t write them. Perhaps if the entire book had been in third person, or if the maids’ sections had been, that might have troubled me less. Especially since Stockett chose to put one central chapter in the third person, without dialect, and it worked well.

This is a complicated book to talk about. It’s a good story, capably written, with many sympathetic characters. But it’s also manipulative, simplistic, and perhaps enacts vestiges of the racism the author purports to expose. I know many people loved it, but I definitely didn’t. I doubt I’d even recommend it.

See this discussion at Amazon for more from people who have problems with this book.

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