Sunday, February 15, 2009

Review: "The Help"

I recently had a chance to read The Help, the debut novel of Kathryn Stockett.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, the book looks at the lives of black maids and the white women who employed them. The narration alternates between three characters--two black, one white--as they collaborate on a secret project to publish the life stories of several maids, a potentially controversial and dangerous goal in a community tearing apart as the fight against segregation progresses.

The three main characters were engaging and lively (the rest were a little one-note, especially the men). I genuinely cared for them, which added the sense of concern as they worked on their project while racial tensions rose around them. But in the end, their stories tied up so conveniently and neatly, that I suddenly felt I was reading a chick lit novel--an odd juxtaposition with the subject matter.

It was an entertaining read. But I have to admit, much about the the book left me uneasy. Take the first introduction of the characters. African-American Minny is known as the best cook in town--and is sassy and overweight to boot. Her friend Abileen, a long-suffering, nuturing woman who has raised over a dozen white children during her career as a domestic, has a special prayer connection with God. White Skeeter is a recent college grad chafing at the limited options available to her as a woman more interested in writing career than marriage (her hair grows longer and her hems shorter as she awakens to social issues). As interesting as the characters were, I wondered at times if they rose above the boxes in which they started. Hattie McDaniel's Mammy was entertaining, but she was still a stereotype, you know?

Skeeter never fully confronts the question of whether she is exploiting the maids for her own professional advancement (it's broached, but quickly left alone), nor the fact that her family's lifestyle depends on the depressed wages of black laborers. And despite Abileen and Minny's strength and life experience, it is naïve Skeeter who suggests that the maids' stories could carry political influence and sets the project in motion.

Bloggers in particular may be interested in what The Help suggests about the power of personal story to cross boundaries and effect change, a belief which inspires many of us to write. And readers interested in issues of race and class in Amercia will find much to explore, both within the story and on a meta-level about the book itself.

(Published by Putnam Adult, 2009, $17 at Amazon. Readers of my personal blog might want to know that there is a minor adoption storyline toward the end. This review was sponsored by Mother Talk. Amazon.com is an affiliate.)

1 comments:

pottergrrl March 24, 2009 at 10:39 AM  

This is pretty tough subject to treat well, and a bad subject to choose if you can't, IMHO. It sounds a lot like the characters you describe all hew pretty closely to our cultural stereotypes--not hearing about much anger, or interracial conflict, or exploration of the power differentials between the black "Help" and the white college grad. And no, not all interracial interactions have to be about anger, but they are a lot more complex than it sounds like they are in this book, esp. at the time the book is set, and in a place and time where they are "the help."

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