The Help by Kathryn Stockett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I struggled with the rating and review for The Help, a story about a white woman writing a book about oppressed domestic help in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. Usually, the sign of a compelling read for me. But I never considered giving it a 5. I flip flopped between 1 and 3. The book bothered me (not its subject matter, but its execution), and I couldn’t rest until I’d untangled what kept pushing me toward the lower rating. I admit I settled on 3 simply because I couldn’t put the book down. I kept reading because I wanted to know what Celia’s secret was and what the heck Minny put in that pie. And I think that’s what bothered me. In a book whose underlying subject has so much more relevance than these details, the trivial captured my attention.
With so much about the book and the movie already discussed, I wasn’t sure I could add anything to the public discourse. As a white woman who grew up in the south in the sixties and came of age in the seventies, I don’t feel adequate to address the social issues underlying the debate. I was either too young, or too oblivious, or too sheltered to understand or recognize the racial tensions in our community during that era. Even going to a mixed race high school in the seventies, I had little personal experience with racial conflict. After reading the book, I have a difficult time believing Ms. Stockett has any more personal experience than I do. Not that a writer can’t write about things they know little about. Ordinarily, adequate research solves the lack of knowledge. I do, however, have a difficult time believing Ms. Stockett’s characters, both white and black, are anything more than caricatures or stereotypes.
If The Help is supposed to be a commentary on social injustice or an attempt at recording history through fiction or even a story about overcoming oppression, it fails miserably. If it’s supposed to be a entertaining, fun read, it fails just as much. For me to find the underlying premise of a work of fiction credible, especially one that attempts to address such a charged issue, my disbelief has to be suspended. I have to find the situations and characters, emotions and reactions, believable. The premise of the book has been minimalized by the devises Ms. Stockett chose to move her plot. The conclusion of the book breaks down. For the central characters, everything is wrapped up in a happily-ever-after ending. The way in which Hilly confirms Aibileen contributed to the book is weak. The use of the pie and its secret ingredient is disgusting and unbelievable. The naked man in Celia’s backyard adds little to the plot except some comic relief. The contrivance by which Hilly is silenced and the maids escape retaliation is thin. If this were a true story, recriminations would have been swift and harsh. The subject matter is too serious to be taken lightly.
There is hypocrisy in the way Ms. Stockett portrays her heroine. A lot has been written referring to the character of Skeeter Phelan as another white-savior protagonist. I really don’t see her as a savior. She reads more like a selfish little white girl, anxious to get away from a miserable life and an overbearing mother, whose social mores are skewed to say the least. How many white girls in the south endured similar pressures? Much pressure was placed on little white girls to find a husband. If we dared to desire a career, then we were pushed toward nursing or teaching, traditionally feminine roles. Did the desire to be a catalyst for social change prompt Skeeter to write about the oppression of black maids? No, I don’t think so. Ms. Stockett gave some lip service to this notion, but Skeeter’s true motives were revealed in her actions.
There is nothing heroic about pushing Aibileen and Minny to risk their lives so that Skeeter can get a job in New York in the publishing industry. Without their stories, Skeeter had no book. The social ostracism she endured was nothing compared to what might have happened to the maids. No one forced them to tell their stories. They made their choice despite the threat of great personal harm. Disappointment, anger, frustration, indignation pushed them to cross the lines drawn by powerful people. For me, the real heroine is Minny. She contributed to the book and urged her friends to do so as well at great risk to herself and her family. Then she included the one story that would bring the wrath of Hilly on her head, providing a buffer between Hilly and the other maids. Ms. Stockett’s choice of Skeeter for her main character minimized Minny’s larger role in the story. I think the premise would have benefited greatly if the story had been told strictly through Minny’s point of view.
The real story is the abuse of power by those in authority. There is more than one kind of oppression here. The white women over their black maids. Leroy over Minny. Charlotte over Skeeter. Elizabeth over Mae Mobley. Hilly over Celia. Hilly over the women of Jackson. By submerging her story in the hot topic of racism, Ms. Stockett diminished a more fundamental aspect of the human condition, one human being’s capacity to torment another human being simply because she (or he) can.
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