20 October 2010

Kathryn Stockett: The Help (2009)

Kathryn Stockett's The Help (2009) is a very popular novel, and I'm wary of such animals. However, this book - written by a woman born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi by a black 'help' and with an obviously partly autobiographical subject matter - is a powerfully written reconstruction of Southern life (largely from the point of view of black domestics) in the early 1960s.

The novel is structured in a series of narratives by the 'helps' Aibileen and the younger Minny (both written in a kind of black vernacular), and the young white Miss Skeeter (written in standard English).  Having the tail end of the Jim Crow law era as its central backcloth, The Help is firmly centered on black and white issues in the domestic field, concentrating on the abuse of black women in that area. With some justification, the front cover of the English Penguin paperback calls it 'The other side of Gone wih the Wind'.

At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Miss Skeeter and Aibileen and the former's strong interest in publishing a series of interviews about the treatment of black domestics by their white employers. Gradually, Aibileen persuades over ten other black workers to be interviewed, and eventually the anonymously authored book is published, and meets with some success, as well as considerable criticism in the Jackson community.

What shines through all this is not just the courage of the black women, not just the courage of one white woman to record it all, but the strength of human resistance against racial bigotry and general ignorance. A heartwarming book with no facile conclusions.


Lyn B said...

It was ghastly. An embarrassment. Cringe- making. I read it for book club and was glad I was lent a copy and didn't buy this book. All that Black dialect made me feel as if it was too patronising to read. It was like a fairy tale, only less believable. When would a nice white girl from a religious background say "Jesus" and "Christ"? Not in 1963, I can tell you! What a one dimensional character Miss Hilly is! She should have had a wart on her nose not a cold sore on her lip. How noble is the "white lady" Miss Skeeter. As for the white trash Miss Celia, save me, what planet is she from. If this is a best seller I can only put it down to its being the written form of bad TV- that we all watch because we are too lazy to turn the TV off. I like a bit of bad TV, but "The Help"- Puke!

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Wow, Lyn, that is some negative comment! I can't say I read it with my mind on the historical credibility of the language, although I believed the characters.

I think I've already stated what I liked about it, and in addition to finding it very amusing I liked the fact that its heart was well and truly in the right place. If Stockett had spent months researching historical details, she may have tweaked out a number of period inaccuracies, but at what price to the loss of spontaneity, narrative drive, etc?

A few days ago I zipped through Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides - nearly 700 pages and set in different periods of the last century - and there were many events in it that I didn't believe a word of. Impossible! But I couldn't put it down because - through all the overwriting, all the colossal exaggeration and unbelievable relationships and behavior - I still very much recognized the South Carolinian Lowcountry (and the pieces set in New York), but much more importantly Conroy is hammering home his message about racial, class, gender, and Northern prejudices.

Stockett too seems to be writing in anger about the abuse of power by the privileged - and that's what appealed to me more than anything.

Oh, and I have to add that I just loved Miss Skeeter!