Monday, May 23, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help is not a bad book, but it does deserve some criticism for falling into the "White Savior" trope. One of the three main characters in the book is Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, who has just moved home to Jackson, Mississippi after completing her college degree. She wants to be a writer, and eventually she gets the idea to write a book about what it's like for black women working as maids for white families. She enlists the help of her friends' maids, Aibileen and Minny, and eventually 10 more maids join. And they write the book, change the names, publish it anonymously, and everyone lives happily ever after. Well, that last part isn't 100% true.

I can see why this book became so popular with reading groups. It's a really quick read (downloaded it to my Nook from the library Thursday night, finished it this afternoon) and there's really no controversial material. I mean, it's clear who is right and who is wrong. These characters don't really have layers. The protagonists don't have any real flaws, and the antagonists don't have anything but flaws. Celia Foote probably has the most layers of anyone in the book, both good qualities and bad, and she's a tertiary character at best. The only controversy could be whether or not Minny actually put shit in Miss Hilly's pie. That is not a euphemism.

So, while it certainly wasn't a perfect book, it was enjoyable. This was Kathryn Stockett's first novel, and she clearly shows talent for pacing and an ability to tell a story. This wasn't exactly a mystery or a thriller, but there were still times that I had to keep reading and reading just to find out what happened next. However, there were some stylistic choices that grated on my nerves. The book is told from three different perspectives: Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny. Stockett writes Aibileen and Minny's chapters in a Mississippi accent, but not Skeeter's. Now I'm sure there was some dialect differences between society girls and the domestic help, but it really bothered me that the white girl apparently thinks and speaks in perfect standard English, while the black women speak like caricatures. There was also a moment in a chapter told from Minny's point of view where we get Skeeter's inner monologue. That's just sloppy writing, and something that should have been taken care of in the editing stage. She also does that thing that you see all the time in historical fiction where the writer points out something (for no reason) that was new or meaningless in the setting of the novel but has significance to the reader thanks to historical perspective. Like having Skeeter watch the news and hear about a conflict in Vietnam that probably won't last too long. Vietnam is never mentioned again and has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Writers just throw stuff like that in because they think it's clever, but more often than not it comes out clumsy.

I chose to read this book because my mom and grandma read it and really liked it, and I want to take them to see the movie when it comes out at the end of summer. It's not the best book I've ever read, but it was really good. I know I've kind of picked at the faults of the book a lot in this review, but I think it's a worthwhile read. A solid B, even a B+ in parts. I didn't live in Mississippi in the early '60s, so I can't tell you how accurate the storyline is or isn't. So if you're a nerd like me and you have to read the book before you see the movie, go ahead and pick up The Help. The trailer looks like the film will be a decent adaptation. I saw the trailer before reading, so I had the actresses' faces in mind while reading, and I think they did a decent job casting.