Friday, July 09, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 464 pages

• Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2009

• Price: $24.95

• ISBN-10: 0399155341

• ISBN-13: 978-0399155345

On recommendation by the book club to which I belong, I opened the cover of The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel and one which has garnered a great deal of attention—including well over 2,000 reviews on Amazon and counting fast. Indeed, a second review appears on The Smoking Poet, written by Jeanette Lee, which pretty much sums up all that, to my mind, needs be said.

I add, then, my personal opinion. First impression: yikes. I read a few sentences and went to double check. Yes, the author is Caucasian. This is either daring, bounded by heavy research and editorial input on authenticity, or it’s downright risky and potentially offensive. Stockett, also from the south, is writing as a black woman. As several black women, in fact.

“Taking care of 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 of bed in the morning.” (Page 1)

This is the voice of Aibileen, one of the main narrative voices in The Help, a black maid working in a southern white household. The time is 1962, the place is Jackson, Mississippi, and the civil rights movement is just gathering seedling strength. Eugenia Skeeter Phelan, known simply as Skeeter because she is as thin as a mosquito, is a fledgling writer trying to break into the publishing world. Her first break is to become a local newspaper columnist, writing columns of household cleaning hints. Alas, she knows nothing about cleaning. The family maid does that. She gets her columns fed to her by Aibileen, but her writer’s eye is on a bigger prize—a book, and part by suggestion, part by lucky bumbling, she begins to gather stories told in the voices of “the help,” the black maids of Jackson. The stories, predictably, range from the cruel and demeaning to the benevolent racist, those who profess to “love” their help, almost as if they were favorite pets.

Even as I bit my lip reading the stereotypical speech of the black women, I, like so many, confess that I was drawn to the story. It’s a fast reader. Stockett has good instincts for what makes a reader turn pages. Her cast of characters is colorful, if leaning dangerously close to one-dimensional, and she adds comic relief with Celia, a white woman so completely out of her element in a rich white world that she doesn’t seem to have a clue why no one ever returns her calls. I caught myself laughing out loud several times. Celia plays the role of “white trash” to the fine southern rich women who are all about fashion and parties and charities, ironically enough, for the “poor, starving children of Africa.” Celia, too, however, is borderline stereotype so-called white trash, with her tight sweaters and bleached blonde hair and tipsy behavior. That she can’t cook at all is surprising, considering she comes from a poor background without maids and cooks in her childhood home.

That would sum it up, then. There is an element of Disneyland here. It’s a very interesting story to read. There is conflict, and risk, and bungled and recovered love stories, and villains and nasty neighbors. Beyond that, we see glimpses of domestic violence and a depraved white man who exposes himself. We see horrendous examples of racism, both from those who are well-meaning and those who enjoy their false sense of superiority all too much. That element of fantasy, however, squeaks in continually, with bad folk like Hilly, first to build a special bathroom for the help to avoid catching their dirty diseases, drawn in all dark shades, and Skeeter, painted in all bright colors, seems to miss her own occasional lapses into that more benevolent racism. Skeeter is likeable, and perhaps too many of us might recognize ourselves in her—a person with good intentions who still seems to have too simplistic a grasp on the risks she is asking these women to take by interviewing them for their frank stories. I suspect we saw too little realism here of just how much risk.

Personally, I’ve never dared to write across genders for my main voice. Daring to write across such deep divides as racial ones would certainly be beyond my own scope and, arguably, beyond most anyone’s. I had to search online to satisfy my curiosity about how the general African-American reader perceives this book. It didn’t take long to find some fascinating responses. The point is frequently brought up that the maids in this novel speak in dialect, while the white southerners do not. Why not? Interviews with the author have unearthed a lack of research, basing the novel only on personal memory from living in a white southern household with a black maid (Aibileen apparently is modeled on the author’s actual maid). Unfortunately, by the time Stockett started writing this novel, the family maid was long ago deceased and could not offer her perspective.

There is a place for books that help us, all of us, to understand the perspectives of those different than ourselves. There is always a place for literature that makes us think harder, look closer in the mirror, examine ourselves for where we may be in need of enlightenment. Stockett does accomplish this with her novel. By sheer popularity of the book, she is being read and discussed by many, and one would hope, those are valuable discussions. This book delves into hard and very serious themes, the aftereffects of which are still infused in contemporary society.

Stockett’s book debuts as popular literature, and her talent is evident, if her research lacking. It is a first novel, yes. I fully expect in this writer’s second, she will have learned to add more dimension to her characters and more research to her story. If The Help relies too heavily on stereotype, the author’s ability to tell an interesting story should win out with even better work to come. I’m betting this is an author to watch.

No comments: