Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I feel as though everyone I know and a LOT of people I don't know have read The Help. Everywhere I turn I see raving comments and reviews of this amazing book I simply *have* to read. I will be honest; the more people tell me I must read a book the greater my cynicism scale rises. I find all too often the books that get the most attention are over-sold and good but in no way amazing. (Think of it like the Star Wars trilogy. Everyone told you how amazing the new movies were going to be and you saw tons of ads showing cool special effects shots, but when you actually watched the movies you were necessarily disappointed. There's only so much hype any story can take before it become impossible to live up to its own reputation.)

So, I picked up The Help wanting to enjoy it but wary it would disappoint. By and large, it didn't. I really enjoyed reading Stockett's view of 1960s Mississippi. One thing I noticed off the bat was I had no idea of the plot of this "amazing" story. For all the raving I had heard, not a single person had explained the basic plot. I had a light bulb moment of realizing who "the help" meant.

In my opinion Stockett's greatest skill is creating believable characters. She had a wide variety of personalities, socio-economic backgrounds,and education levels all stuffed into Civil Rights era Jackson, Mississippi and yet I did not feel any of the characters was a stereotyped cardboard cutout. They all had depth and personality which made them feel real. In her short monologue at the back of the book, Stockett talks about her difficulty writing genuine feeling relationships between White- and African-American characters that didn't sound too Gone With the Wind. I think she was successful in creating an honest and sympathetic view of the love that develops between caregivers and those in need of the care. Each woman in the story has a unique story which dictates who she is and why she sees the world as she does. Yet Stockett does not fall into the trap of grouping characters into an "us" and "them" dichotomy. The closest she has to a wooden character is Hilly and that is only because as a reader we never see the world through Hilly's eyes. A wise choice on Stockett's part as I think it would be difficult to write such a staunchly racist character in today's world and make her at all sympathetic.

My favorite storyline probably involved Minnie and Celia because it was one of the most unexpected. I thought I had figured out Celia and Johnny's relationship and was relieved when I hadn't. I liked the story Stockett wrote much better.

The reason I can't give this book my overwhelming praise and stated "by and large" was the historian who I just can't turn off. Having recently read Precious and seen The Blind Side (and moreover read commentaries and critiques of both the books and the movies) I have a growing awareness of the difference in mainstream views of African-American life and more sidelong stories. While Stockett did a "good" job recreating her world, she was careful. She did not show the horrors she could have shown. She played it safe. Her book was written for and is being appreciate by a white, middle-class, safe audience. She is not going to rock any boats with what she wrote. Overwhelmingly her readers can walk away feeling good about themselves without having to question their own personal morality. The Help is almost a sanitized version of The Color Purple or Beloved.

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