I read A LOT, but this is the first time I’ve attempted to “review” something. I typically just scribble my gut reactions and likes/dislikes about my latest read in a notebook. This is kind of like that, but significantly longer. I’m a terrible reviewer, because while I’m always happy to talk books, I don’t usually care about influencing anyone one way or another. This is a sort of weird introduction.
I’ve just finished reading Kathryn Stockett’s book “The Help.” The following is only about the book, as I have yet to see the movie. I realize I am a little late to the bandwagon, considering this was “the” book/film of the summer. Most contemporary fiction sends me running back to classic literature (my preferred genre); this was no exception.
“The Help” is the story of a young, spunky, aspiring writer, Skeeter Phelan, a white woman of privileged background born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. After returning from college to a life of bridge games and youth league meetings with her socialite friends, Skeeter finds herself increasingly bored and irritated by her life in Jackson. She wants to be a journalist in a big city, but lacking any real experience, she is advised by a mentor to find something “disturbing” to write about. When her best friend, Hilly Holbrook, preaches to her about the health benefits of separate bathrooms for blacks and whites, it makes Skeeter cringe but gets her thinking about writing a book from the point of view of the help. She is personally invested in the topic, having been more-or-less raised by a maid named Constantine herself. Skeeter is the driving force of “The Help,” but the story would not be possible without maids Aibeleen and Minny. Throughout the book, they reveal details about their personal lives and work experiences. In agreeing to help Skeeter with her book, the three women form an uneasy alliance in the hope that their honesty will change relations between blacks and whites in Jackson. The book is eventually published anonymously, to the delight of some and to the horror of others.
I’m honestly very conflicted about this book. It is problematic in such a glaringly obvious way that the stories of the black maids are written by a white woman (I’m talking about both Skeeter and Stockett, who is writing from personal experience with a background similar to Skeeter’s own). Aibeleen and Minny are strong, powerful characters. Their life stories are, by far, more compelling than Skeeter’s own personal journey to become another small town 20-something living in New York City. It’s frustrating that the maids are unable to accomplish anything without Skeeter in the context of this story.
On the one hand, Skeeter is an admirable character. Maybe I say this because I can relate to the “typical” white girl with “white guilt” character who believes in equality for all, but has absolutely no idea what it is like to be black in the United States. And it’s a total no-brainer to NOT be racist in 2011. I can’t quite imagine standing for the same things in the 1960’s American South. So she has that going for her. Also, I think her intentions to “change things” (as she put it) were pure; I don’t think she simply sought out this story as something “interesting” to land her a dream job. The fact remains though, that Skeeter is pushy and nagging about getting Aibeleen to recruit maids for the book, knowing that she is dependent on them. She is also asking the maids to take personal risks that are much greater than her own risks. If Skeeter is found out as “The Help’s” anonymous author, the worst that is likely to happen to her is social isolation, but it is made clear throughout the story that she is socially ostracized before the book is even published. She has nothing to lose, while the maids put everything on the line. Even though Aibeleen is so overwhelmingly proud of her, Minny, and Skeeter’s accomplishment in getting the book published, this accomplishment costs her her job. She claims she feels “free.” But the reality of the situation is, if you followed up with her six months after the conclusion of the book, with her reputation permanently tarnished, she probably wouldn’t be doing so well. That Skeeter gives all of the maids the choice to opt in or out of telling their stories, that she strives to protect their anonymity, and that she is ostensibly fair about sharing the profits of the book with the women who contributed while all admirable, does not erase the sore feelings I have about her profiting off of these women’s lifetime of struggles. This fact just gnawed at me throughout reading and made me unable to fully enjoy the book.
I do realize, of course, that this is probably more a reality of the historical situation in the 1960’s South than a fault of the story or the author. Realistically, Aibeleen and Minny would have never been able to write and publish anything on their own, due to so many constraints of that time. I also recognize that the cooperation between whites and blacks was important in the Civil Rights movement, so it’s not like the kind of collaboration in “The Help” is unrealistic. Maybe it’s even a good thing that I am irritated by this book - that this wasn’t a purely human interest story about a difficult period in history; there was shameful behavior and there was tumult. But then I think about this book/film having such mass appeal over the summer. I don’t mean to sound condescending, but I just don’t trust that that many people who read it or saw it considered the problematic side of it. I think it was billed as a sort of heartwarming tale of triumph against adversity. This bothers me all over again.
Despite all of the angst above, I think the author’s rendering of some of the relationships between the black maids and the white families is the book’s most endearing feature. Johnnie and Celia Foote’s tears of genuine gratefulness for Minny towards the end; one of Skeeter’s friends telling her in confidence that she credits her maid with helping her overcome her depression and suicide attempts; and of course, Aibeleen’s brimming love and affection for Mae Mobley and their sweet secret story time are among my favorite scenes. These relationships are transcendent, genuine, and yes, heartwarming. In the afterword, Stockett says the one line she truly prizes in her book is this one: “Wasn’t that that point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.” It’s hard to totally knock someone for trying to spread that sentiment around.