Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett book cover
The Help (2009) is Kathryn Stockett’s tale about the segregation-torn south of the 1960s, and the strength of a few good women who dared to challenge the status quo. Stockett’s primary protagonist, Skeeter Phelan, is a tall, gangly (would-be) writer who is socially-awkward and, despite being twenty-three, has never kissed a boy. Writing a small domestic column for a local publication Skeeter fumbles around for inspiration before she settles on the idea of writing a book that tells the story of the town’s black maids – from their own mouths. Here, the novel’s other narrators come in. Aibileen, a God-fearing, gentle maid in her fifties, and Minny, a fiery, back-chatting maid who is her junior by a decade or so. Both Aibileen and Minny work for white women in Skeeter’s town; Aibileen for the neglectful Elizabeth Leefolt and Minnie for Celia Foote – social outcast and ‘white trash’ made good. White society is run by the Junior League and its leader, Hilly Holbrook, is a force to be reckoned with. The members of the Junior League ostracise not only their black maids, but also those they consider their social inferiors, including Skeeter and Celia. As more maids begin to share their stories with Skeeter, the pressure to keep the project a secret intensifies and all know that if they are exposed there will be appalling consequences for those involved.

The Help has a lot to say about ignorance, and how quickly it can dissipate when one is exposed to new experiences and different cultures. The novel also strongly advocates the strength and qualities of women, and women-to-women relationships, suggesting that every woman is unique and has the power to influence the world around her. However, with the benefit of distance from the time period depicted and the actual events that took place during the segregation era, The Help is in no way revolutionary in its thinking, and has little to add in a serious sense, but rather is content with the slightly veneered reality it creates. The atrocities of the day seem to slide into the background of the story, and the case of a few brave women is drawn to the fore, creating a strangely sanitised view of the time, where, despite the idea that there is serious peril for all the main characters, the reader never truly believes anything bad will happen.

The book strikes an odd tone, the brutality and fear of a period juxtaposed with a storyline which feels like it was plucked straight from a Hollywood movie. In a similar way, Stockett draws comparisons between racial discrimination and the discrimination amongst the white women, demonstrating that prejudice can be formed along many lines. However, whilst interesting, this in some ways trivialises the race issue which, while comparable in terms of the origins of prejudice, is entirely incomparable in relation to the scale and consequences of the prejudice. Perhaps this was just a natural evolution in a novel populated mainly by women, most of whom had very little power and limited ways to express their opinions (or prejudices).Indeed, in a novel full of women, the few men that do appear paint a troubling picture. The black men are nearly all violent, lazy, or abandon their families. The white men are all unrealistically liberal or, where they’re not, this is glossed over quickly. This is not only unrealistic and offensive, it also smacks of some daddy idealisation from the author, not to mention, when considering the poor parenting in the novel, potential mother issues too. In fact, throughout there is an odd sense that Stockett seems to be sub-consciously carrying some of the prejudices her less favourable characters embody.

For Skeeter, The Help is a coming-of-age story in a sense, but there is a moment when Skeeter’s motives are questioned, and it would have been nice to have this idea developed – to ask if it is actually ok for a white woman to launch her career off the back of black women’s stories, black women who put themselves in danger with no chance of escape if things turned sour. With Skeeter an apparent stand-in for Stockett, this would have been an excellent opportunity for self-reflection.

The book is incredibly readable, with the prose flowing smoothly, and the lack of complexity or subtlety makes for a disturbingly-easy read. Perhaps the biggest problem is that there isn’t enough contrast in the characters: the white women are nearly all spiteful, ignorant and selfish (bitchy and unpleasant); the black women are nearly all philosophical, diligent, and caring (good and suffering). These are largely stereotypes and are clearly defined as either good or bad. It’s demeaning to both the reader and ethnic minorities to assume that black women had to be presented as one-dimensionally good, rather than fully-formed human beings who have both good and bad in them, and the same applies to the white women. In choosing this simplistic view of good and bad, Stockett makes it too easy for the reader to side with the black maids against the evil Hilly, without having to think too deeply about the complex issues of living through such a period, and without questioning how they themselves would have behaved.

Another of the big issues with the novel is the dialogue. Stockett attempts to capture the maids dialect by using grammatical and phonetic techniques, but this appears a little inconsistent at times and, worse still, the elements drawn out seem reductive, with just a handful of traits pulled out and reiterated. Whilst attempting this with the black characters, Stockett makes no real attempt to catch the Southern accent of the white characters, and this strikes a slightly odd chord.

Throughout there is a sense that Stockett is writing from subjective opinion, without having done any thorough research into her topic. In fact, she has mentioned that in interviews she conducted with maids who worked at the time it was widely reported that they disliked their employers and saw the job as just that, not forming an emotional attachment with the family they served – not an attitude that is borne out in the book. Stockett admits to playing around with timelines to incorporate certain real-events - at times this is a trivial matter, at others it relates to the civil rights movement that forms the background to the novel. Whether intentional or not, this adds to the feeling that the novel has been poorly researched. Perhaps the most publicised mistake borne out of poor research relates to the factual errors in relaying the famous murder of Medgar Evers.

Ultimately, the plot and not the characters, drive the story forward, and this often leads to characters acting in ways contrary to their personality or appearing as cardboard cut-outs. One also wonders what the point of the Celia Foote plot-line was – a strand that was developed but led to absolutely nothing and petered out without adding any significant value to the novel.

Regardless of an author’s background, there is a responsibility when tackling a subject as sensitive as this. It appears that Stockett abdicated this responsibility almost entirely. The Help belongs to a branch of fiction that purports to create a historical setting, and thus it’s important that this setting is accurate and representative. The Help is not; it’s an idolised look at a minority case. It touches on fear, disadvantage and unfairness for the black community, but somehow glosses over these things rather than delving deeper. However, for those who have a limited knowledge of segregation, this might provide an entrance into the subject, and one hopes that readers do not stop at this rather limited effort, and go on to read more about the period.

The strength of the book is the relationships between the characters, the love between Aibileen and Minny, and Aibileen and her charge, Mae Mobley, the feeling of displacement and dissonance that many of the characters share and their grasping at human interaction. However, there is no great revelation at the novel's conclusion, that Stockett felt the message that white people and black people aren’t so different amounted to such is really quite insulting. Whether it had lofty ambitions or not is hard to say. However, no matter how many times To Kill a Mockingbird is mentioned in the book, this is a far cry from Harper Lee’s classic.

In some ways I enjoyed the story on a basic level, but too much of Stockett's writing felt lazy and ill-informed. I hadn't expected to agree with many of the criticisms that have been levelled at this book, but in the end I found an awful lot to be unimpressed by.


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Reviews of The Help on Amazon (UK)
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2 comments:

Heather said...

Fantastic review. This is a book I'm skipping, for lots of reasons.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Quite probably a good decision Heather - I'm pleased to be able to take part in the discussion, but really I could happily have done without this one.