Friday, August 12, 2011

The Help

I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The movie's out now, so I wanted to finish the book fast so I could go and see it. When I read the first few chapters, I was really distracted by the language of the two main characters, Aibileen and Minny. They were supposedly thinking and speaking like black maids in the 60's, through the writing of a white woman. I found it really distracting, but in the end it didn't detract from what Stockett was aiming to do, which was to show her readers a new perspective. I read the NYTimes review, which said the white characters are the ones who suffer the most from caricaturization. I totally agree. The white women are all helpless, silly, or just plain villainous, like Hilly Holbrook. There was truth in those portrayals, and maybe I'm throwing aside gender in the 60's just to talk about race in the 60's (surprise surprise). But I could tell that characters like Celia and Hilly were AS ridiculous as they were because it made the book more entertaining. We understood Hilly was a domineering, racist socialite and we understood that Celia was an ditzy, insecure "white trash" wife trying to impress her rich husband. Those points were constantly driven home, maybe a little too far home.

What I enjoyed was the audacity of it, the awkwardness of Skeeter's first interview with Aibileen, and the gradual easing of that relationship. The condemnation Skeeter received, and the reassurance that her mission was right, because the times, they were "a-changin." But the subject was so touchy, the white women didn't want to be seen as racists, or see themselves as such. This problem endemic to Jackson, Mississippi was observed through indidividuals, in their treatment of their maids, and their reaction to the book that let it all hang out. I loved reading about the women who asked questions about their own behavior, about the behavior of their friends, and those who stood up for the women who raised their children. The bad stories are important, now it seems like we're showered with them in an age of "post-racist-morbid-fascination." I'm fascinated too, but the art lies in the good stories. Love conquers hate, courage conquers fear, steadfastness overcomes systematic oppression. Aibileen and Minny are beautiful characters, and they succeed in telling their story.

In the Afterword of the book, Stockett quotes Howell Raines as an encapsulation of her struggle in writing The Help:

There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dihonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.

Then she repeats the book's line that she "truly prizes:"

Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separate us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought.

When my mom read the first chapter, she set it down and thought, I had a black maid. She told us all about Jane, who used to wax their floors then slide my mom and her brother around on a blanket. I was in awe of this new story.

I was also inspired by the amount of work Skeeter put in to get her book printed and published, and the sacrifices she made to tell a story that needed to be told. She isolated herself in order to bring others into view, but in the end, she found more love than hate, made more friends than enemies. Unity triumphed over separation.

I'm going to go see the movie now.