Saturday, August 28, 2010

Redux #31 - "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett

It's been so long since I've written a review or even been back to this blog that I forgot how to get to a new post. My EMT class ended about a week ago and even though I'm focused more than ever on learning Spanish, I find that I also finally have some free time. The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett was one of the only books I was able to read and finish this summer. It's a big bestseller and I'd heard about it from a number of people, so I put it on the waiting list at the library and waited for it to come in. And although I may have been a little disappointed in the end, in comparison to how quickly I was sucked into the story in the beginning, on the whole I thought it was an interesting and fast read.

The Help is a look at Jacksonville, Mississippi at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, specifically at a small number of young, white women in Jacksonville and their maids. The perspective of the story shifts among three women: Skeeter (a/k/a Eugenia Phelan) is an aspiring writer and living at home with her parents after graduating from college; Aibileen is a fifty-something maid to one of Skeeter's friends in Jacksonville, and Minny is a hot-headed maid that ends up working for the town's social outcast. The different perspectives do a pretty good job of showing the two drastically different worlds and attitudes in Jacksonville at that time.

However, there were a number of problems with this book, and after browsing the negative book reviews at Amazon. com, I have to agree with some of the criticism. First, there were complaints that the dialogue of the maids was sloppy and often incorrect; also that it was unrealistic to have the maids speak with a strong "southern maid" dialect, but not have any accent for the white women. For my part, I did find the accents a little jarring at the beginning, but I quickly got used to them and didn't pay them much attention. I also have so little knowledge of southern accents and what is authentic and what isn't, that I didn't think much about them at all as I read.

Another complaint was that the characters were simply caricatures. Stockett used one strong, loyal maid (Aibileen) and one sassy, good-cook maid (Minny). It's safe to say that the characters of the maids could have been more developed, but on the other hand, I think it's commendable that Stockett wrote from Minny and Aibileen's perspective. And she succeeded much better than a lot of Hollywood movies I've seen (for example, The Blind Side), especially when Skeeter and Aibileen start working together, so it's better than nothing. I guess it depends on what level of writing and characterization you're looking for and expecting. I appreciated that Hilly, the clear cut villain of the story, loved her children, and that Skeeter, the main heroine, was not perfect, but there could have been improvements here.

One thing that bothered me as the book went on was that I couldn't really understand the characters' motivations or believe some of the storylines. ***SPOILER*** What had me wondering the most was a major part of the ending of the book. The maids are terrified of the reprisal they'll face when the book is published if people figure out that it's about Jacksonville. So, in order to protect them, Minny decides to include a story of how she put shit (I thought it was her own, but I'm not sure) in one of her chocolate pies and then proceeded to feed two giant slices to Miss Hilly. So, Hilly is a power-hungry, extreme racist, who could have Minny killed or at the very least jailed for something like that, but apparently she's too embarrassed to tell anyone. And then when the book comes out, Hilly is too intent on hiding the fact that she's in the story about eating poo, so then the maids are somehow protected. I didn't understand the motivations there at all. I also wondered why Hilly couldn't taste it, if there were any significant amount of shit in that cake. Finally, I know that Minny was hot-headed, but for a long time Minny was way too afraid to even talk to Skeeter. Minny's not stupid and she knows the consequences of her actions, yet she can give the most powerful woman in Jacksonville shit and then brag about it to her? That was hard for me to believe. Also, I never understood the storyline with Skeeter's mother or why it was even in the book.

I do think that Stockett did a good job in showing the atmosphere of the time. I've never really been to the south, but I've read and learned a fair bit about Slavery in the South and I'm obviously aware of the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement. However, I was still struck by the blatant and loud hypocrisy of the women like Hilly. What struck me most however, was reading about the fear the maids and others felt when and if they tried to go against the norm. I have read about freedom riders being killed and people being attacked, but I guess it never occurred to me that it would be difficult for Skeeter to talk to a black woman if she wanted to, or the very real, myriad dangers that the maids faced just for talking about what their lives were like. I do think Stockett did a good job with this aspect of her story; there were times when I was reading that I was genuinely creeped out by the sense of danger I felt. And although I was disappointed in some aspects, especially all the wrapping up at the end, I'm glad I read it.

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