I found The Help to be more entertaining than any book about Civil Rights in 1960’s Jackson Mississippi has a right to be. I’m not entirely sure if that is a criticism, a complaint, or a compliment. Whatever it is it starts with C.
The book is filled with truly delightful narrators in the persons of Aibilene, Minny, and Skeeter. The first two are black maids working for white women, Skeeter is a white girl who just finished college and wants to write something important so that she can get a job with a publisher as a journalist.
The three all come together when Skeeter stumbles, almost accidentally upon the idea of writing the story of the maids in Jackson, showing what they see and do all day.
Parts of the story are sad, parts are frustrating, and all of it is smooth as butter. The tone is fairly light while also dealing with some really weighty matters (beatings, killings, violence and really horrendous human behavior). I think that the tone is what both saves and condemns the novel.
If the story was dark and showed the vacant, soulless side of human nature while a few people struggle to survive it could have quickly become just another story about ‘life is pain, highness.’ The lighter tone makes it so that all those horrible things have just enough emotional impact to feel it but it’s slightly removed, the characters aren’t directly abused physically (with exception of Minny but it is never shown ‘on screen’), it’s somebody else, it’s safe.
On the other hand the lighter tone also makes it feel like Stockett is treating a very serious and tumultuous time in our nation’s history with less than the proper amount of respect. 1960’s Mississippi was not a pretty place for anybody to be, especially Civil Rights activists and anybody who was not white. Having a more jovial bent to the story makes it feel less weighty, and maybe less important.
The delicate balance comes in the way the material is presented. There are seemingly good people, both black and white, who don’t want to change anything, who want things to stay the way they are. There are also people on both sides of the spectrum seeking change.
Stockett does a credible job of offering a variety of characters who all have their own agendas to make it feel real and heartfelt, almost heart-breaking while also being light-hearted and funny.
To my mind the voices of the three characters was spot on. I felt like I knew Minny, Aibilene and Skeeter within the first couple sentences of their respective narrations.
The relationships were less believable. We are told, over and over, that Skeeter and Hilly are best friends. Yet from page one Hilly is belittling everybody around her, claiming that ‘colored people’ carry diseases and generally being controlling and nasty. There isn’t a moment of redeeming virtue. There isn’t even a scene where Skeeter and Hilly get along. From page one they are frustrated at each other. It kept me wondering why they were ever friends to begin with.
This is where things get a little bit tricky. I enjoyed this book immensely. It is beautifully written and has characters that made me care deeply almost instantly. The words are smooth and beautiful and it feels like being in the south again. However, I am a white person and can only view this book with those eyes. To my eyes it does a great job of examining the lives of it’s characters. I don’t know what my reaction would be if I were not white. Many times being a privileged member of American society means that I completely miss blatant (and many times unintended) racism all around me until somebody else points it out.
A few things in this book stood out in my mind. All the black men are some kind of lowlifes — Minny’s husband beats her when he gets stressed, Aibilene’s husband left her when she got pregnant — while these are real scenarios and this does happen I felt like The Help presented the implication that it is more likely to happen in black families than in white, which simply isn’t true. I suspect the choices were made for dramatic effect and they worked very well, but the balance of a loving family of black people never shows up so that the reader can see that it does exist. Likewise there are no white men who beat their wives or run off on their pregnant wives.
There are probably more things that I missed and that brings up a question in my mind about preconceptions and decisions. I have no doubt that Kathryn Stockett did not set out to depict black men as wife-beating, abandoning rejects. She also didn’t intend to imply that all white families are supportive and kind, the implication is cultural and unintended, but it’s there nevertheless. How many times do I say things, do things, write things that are offensive to people of a different race, gender, age, ability or creed without even knowing that I am playing into stereotypes and false preconceptions? How often do we say things, thinking we are being fair when we really aren’t?
I know this happens to everybody because even if you are one of the minorities you have been raised in a culture that treats you as less privileged than the so called majority and that affects how you think. The only answer, as I see it, is to be aware and try to be better.
With that tangent aside and with the caveat that I read this book as an adult white male, probably the most privileged majority group in American culture, I found this book delightfully fascinating.