BOOK: The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2010)

I was a little wary of this novel, to be honest, because, man, THE HYPE!  The hype was INSANE!  I have a bad track record when it comes to high expectations — the more the masses rave about something, the more I expect it to be brilliant, the more I am typically extremely let-down.

And, to be honest, that kind of happened this time too, though not as dramatically as I feared it might.  I’m going to have a hard time explaining where my disappointment came from because I really did enjoy this novel — I did! — but I definitely wasn’t as mad-crazy about it as a lot of other people seem to have been.

The story is set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi and centers around a community of rich white women, their young children, and the black maids who serve their families.  The white women fall along the entire spectrum of racism, ranging from the awful Miss Hilly, a horrible person whose primo cause is trying to convince other whites to install separate bathrooms in their homes for their maids because black people cause disease; all the way to Miss Skeeter, who can’t believe the way her friends treat the women who care for their children, houses, and husbands, and eventually decides to write a book consisting of interviews with the maids of Jackson, telling true stories about their lives as “the help.”

This happens right as the civil rights movement is gaining momentum, in Jackson and elsewhere, and the black women Skeeter wants to interview  resist the idea at first, knowing if they ever got caught at best they’d lose their jobs, and at worst, they’d be dragged into the street and killed (no exaggeration — it happens to their neighbor, activist Medgar Evers, mid-way through the book).

But gradually, one by one, they agree to tell Skeeter the stories of their lives.  These stories too encompass a spectrum, from horrific tales of astonishing abuse to descriptions of kindness and authentic familial love.  It seems the relationship between black and white women is not nearly as, well, black and white as one might have expected.

Each section of the novel is narrated by a different character, giving us a variety of perspectives, and overall, I thought this novel was very interesting, as well as entertaining, as it closely examines the history of race relations in the U.S. and provides some insight into the way things have and have not changed for those of us living now.  It’s also a book about the intricacies of human interaction, and how complex those interactions truly are.  Things are not always as cut and dry as they seem — not even hate.

BUT, there were a few things about this novel that kind of rubbed me the wrong way.  The primary one was the fact Stockett made a point of having all the black characters in the book speak with a thick dialect, written right into their dialogue in the story.  But the white women all speak cleanly and “normally,” despite the fact this story is set in the deep south, where, I’m sorry, even the wealthiest white folk talk funny.  That kind of made me uncomfortable — perhaps irrationally or unjustly, but still.  It didn’t feel quite right.  It felt like it was perpetuating some of the very stereotypes Stockett was trying to show us were invalid, and while Stockett also gave her black characters extremely sharp minds (one of the narrators, Aibileen, is such a powerful writer herself Skeeter doesn’t even have to edit her chapter in the book, for example), it didn’t quite go far enough to undo that incongruity for me.  I don’t think Stockett did this on purpose; I think it was probably done without thinking about it.  And perhaps it doesn’t really deserve the attention I’m giving it, either.  I can’t tell.  I’m not good at stuff like this.  Racism makes me uncomfortable because it so thoroughly perplexes me.  Judging someone based on their skin color or their language or their religion or their sexual preferences — this sort of thing simply does not compute to me.  So maybe I’m being overly sensitive.  But I thought it was worth mentioning and possibly discussing with others.

The other problem I had is a lot more mundane, and it was that the characters themselves all felt like stereotypes to me.  Okay, so, maybe that’s because Mississippi in the 1960s WAS a place full of stereotypes, right?  Stereotypes gotta come from somewhere, after all.  But I felt like nobody really changed in this novel, either — nobody had an experience that dramatically altered the character of their character.  You could argue this novel is actually ALL about change, but tell me which character started out one way and ended up another?  Because I didn’t really see growth like that in anybody.

You might think Skeeter was a stand-out in that regard — she begins as one of the clique of rich white girls and ends up publishing a controversial book on how awful that clique really is, after all.  But really, Skeeter takes on that topic not because it’s of deep interest to her, but because she’s pretty much told it’s the only thing she’ll ever be able to sell.  Sure, she then ends up learning a lot about the lives of the maids and families around her, but it doesn’t really CHANGE her, I wouldn’t say.  Nobody’s changed, really.  They start as stereotypes, and they end the same way.  That meant when I finally turned the last page, I felt unsatisfied.  Like I’d been taken on the beginning of a journey that ended before it should have.

Likewise lacking is the writing overall, which is merely sufficient and nothing special.  That’s not a huge deal — this is a very, very engaging and entertaining book and once I picked it up, I found it nearly impossible to put down.  But considering the widespread raving about it, I confess I was expecting a little more literary depth.   I could see it being perfect for book clubs and discussion, and I’d love to discuss it with some people myself.  But it’s not destined to become a classic, the way the hype almost had me believing it might be.  It’s just not strong enough.

Little niggling complaints aside, though, this is a really good book and one I think almost everybody will enjoy reading (especially women, I would say).  Recommended!

[FICTION]

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6 Responses to “BOOK: The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2010)”

  1. Cheryl Says:

    Your discussion of how no-one seemed to change in the book rang a chord for me.

    I think there are two kinds of great books. One where only the protaganist changes, and one where both the protagonist and I change (presumably for the better).

    A masterpiece is a book of the second kind that is true for just about everyone who reads it.

    It’s entirely possible that the book got a lot of hype because it fell into the second category for a lot of people. The fact that racisim is still such a charged topic means way too many people aren’t past it.

    And it speaks volumes about you that you were already past it and didn’t need it.

  2. Liz Says:

    Way to go, Cheryl! Your comments speak volumes about your point of view, also! Does anyone think that racism is WORSE now than it was, say, in the ’60’s and/or ’70’s? Meg, I think you REALLY ARE a non-judgmental person – and that, IMHO, is pretty rare these days.

    Also, just wondering – did this book seem like the movie, “Crash?” Your description of it reminded me of it, but I don’t know if it was a book first. But I think a lot of people are STILL clueless about what racism, stereotypes, and bigotry really are! AND I don’t think this “new” PC language is the answer!

  3. Leslee Martin Says:

    I was glad to read this thoughtful review – because I picked up the book two years ago and read two chapters, then returned it unfinished to the library. That’s unusual for me – I read every day and typically finish two books every week, fiction and non-fiction. I remember finding the initial chapters painfully trite, the forced dialects embarrassing and insulting, the quality of the writing shallow. Of course not every new author can be Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood, Dennis Leehan or Geraldine Brooks, but seriously – I was bored by the writing and have a long book queue so I returned it unread. Watching this book climb to heights of fame, and a feature film left me wondering – why was this story so appealing to a certain audience? Does anybody notice that while the players may have changed in 50 years, there’s a whole new population of “help” who aren’t getting many breaks or symathy — just check out those men with the back-pack leaf-blowers and those women in small groups on the 6 a.m. train out to the suburbs — they are speaking Spanish or Portuguese or some French patois and they are on their way to clean for and care for the children of others. Maybe that’s the next book — If the INS has its way who clean our toilets and fluff our lawns?”

  4. megwood Says:

    Wow, Leslie — that is an excellent point (about today’s “help”) and I’m ashamed I didn’t think of it myself, frankly. Shit. And I’m as surprised as you are over the hoopla for this book. I can’t imagine the film’s going to be any better, unless someone really, really good wrote the script (I should find out who, now that I think about it). Meh. We’ll see. Thank you for your truly thoughtful and compassionate comment!

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