Lee's Reviews > The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
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's review
Aug 31, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: contemporary-fiction, southern-lit
Read in August, 2009

** spoiler alert ** I'm...a little unsure what I'm saying about this one. I had heard of it--it's a best-seller, particularly sweeping in the south--but I don't think I would have picked it up if my mother hadn't been so moved as to send me a text message about it while I was at work. I wish I'd saved it, it was actually punctuated. She said that she'd gotten it from the library and was buying a copy because she felt it was such a good portrayal of what it was like to be a woman when she was growing up, that I should read it to know what her world was like then, and "how far we've come."

I don't know. The premise was good. And Stockett knows how to move a plot; the thing was easy to read. But through the whole experience I couldn't help but feel a little uncomfortable, and not really in the good this-is-revealing-my-biases kind of way I've gotten from books written about race relations written from the perspective of the disenfranchised. I bristled when I got to the first black maid character and saw that her chapters were in a kind of pidgen English, while Skeeter's (the white narrator) were in invisible-perspective college-educated English. Yes, Skeeter just got out of college, which could explain away her lack of accent/syntax irregularities, and isn't that convenient. (Personally, even this required suspension of my disbelief. Stockett has spent her time in the South, and yet somehow she fails to really show that even though all southern accents and ways of talking are lumped together as bumpkinish by outsiders, within the South, especially at the time period, certain southern accents were sign of wealth and distinction, and even educated southerners would not have been so quick to unlearn them.)

I was able to keep reading when I saw that, in dialogue, Stockett does let some of her white women speak "southern" as well, although the ruling tendency is to give them unremarkable English and to pepper the maid's with "be's" and "done's", even with Aibileen, the maid who writes well enough to need hardly any editing, and who reads Faulkner and Richard Wright as eagerly as a beach novel.

Then there's the fact that though this is a novel about the burgeoning civil rights movement told from "the sidelines" (in the same way that '80s career women are often seen as "the sidelines" of the more radical feminist movement), and from women. There were really no fleshed out male characters here at all, I felt them all as faceless, clueless, heavy-treading hulking presences in a scene, but certainly not distinguishable from each other as a rule. This isn't necessarily a complaint--I endure the opposite often enough, and the novel seems comfortable being a microcosm of women, like "Cranford," maybe. But...for all that room, and all that delicious novelty, and all the room for detail that kind of focus should afford Stockett, I finished the book feeling kind of let down for the female characters. They were all awkward mixes of stereotype and archetype, even the book's dearest, most compelling characters who get all the figurative "screen time" (lord, did I just write that?): the wise, loving black woman; the screechy, mad black woman; the pathetic, trashy-but-somehow-lovable Marilyn wannabe; and the painfully earnest but stupid in the ways of the world wide-eyed lady-writer-wannabe.

Really, I'm not sure I even mind that she used those tropes as characters. But I was disappointed that she didn't do anything to turn any of them on their heads, add any new nuances, challenge me in some way to see them differently. And I know, after reading the afterword (and from my common sense, yes), that Skeeter is supposed to be the one I identify with, that she is most closely the mouthpiece of the author herself, a southerner with ambiguous feelings about her family's black maid, who moved to New York to be a writer...but I found Skeeter mostly insufferable, especially when compared to Aibileen and Minny. There are a few places in the novel where her unexamined sense of privilege is gently made fun of, but those moments never go deep enough to reach anything hard or terribly unflattering about that privilege, and on the whole I felt that we were supposed to be lauding Skeeter all the way for being so big and brave as to care about the black maid's plight, if only sort of accidentally for her own gain.

The book reaches its enlightenment apex with the white woman realizing that we're all just people, regardless of skin color or, perhaps, class. Which is nice. It's a good thing to know and verbalize. And I was charmed by it, rooted for it, when that was the message of Aibileen's disguised stories meant to counteract the racism that Mae Mobley would absorb growing up. But, I was really hoping for a grown-up story.

This book won't stay with me for more than a day or so, I can already tell. Maybe the premise will. More than anything, I think I'll be wondering for a while just what these stories triggered in my mother that spurred such violent emotion and memory. That's the book I want to read.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Donna in Southern Maryland I can't imagine this book not staying with you. Perhaps it is just a generational thing. I understand what your mother was trying to tell you. I'm glad you read it, and maybe as you experience more of life, the more it will ring true.

Hillary Lee -- I so agree with your review. I was 100 pages from the end when I put the book down and never picked it up again. I doubt it was a generational thing. I have friends my age who adored it, but somehow it didn't touch me quite the same way.

message 3: by Kenielle (new) - added it

Kenielle I want to read but I don't

Sarah Larson Butler This book was terrible! It was just begging to be a movie, and it's got a terrible white savior complex to it. Hey, how about a story about race that challenges you, or the very least, hands the microphone to the disenfranchised?

Chandré Louw Great review.

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