Thursday, 2 December 2010

Kathryn Stockett: The Help

The Help is a book I enjoyed despite a million reasons not to. The writing is clunky, the story frequently crosses the line into melodrama, there are many side plots that don't quite resolve, and it commits the ultimate sin - a blonde white woman writes in the voice of multiple African-American maidservants. The author's note goes some way in resolving these issues (obviously Stockett was aware that these elements might be dealbreakers). She makes clear that the white protagonist is a stand-in for herself, and the black protagonists stand in for the imagined lives of her beloved family maid. Like Skeeter, Stockett lost her maid very suddenly and realized, to her sadness, that she knew nothing about the woman who was the most important caregiver in her life due to the inattention of her blood family.

The explanation Stockett provides helped me to forgive the use (overuse!) of written dialect during the Minny and Aibileen chapters, which is jarring at best. But that's been covered extensively by other reviewers, so I won't dwell, except to say that by the end of the novel, this choice isn't as offensive as I thought it might be. Previously voiceless African-American characters are given rich, three dimensional attention. We come to love them, and the very threat of anything bad happening to them burns our hearts. But apart from Skeeter, the Stockett stand-in character, the white women in the novel are written with no such attention. The story of white trash Celia had so much potential but was ultimately wasted.

The book is tagged as 'the other side of Gone With the Wind,' but I thought it more accurately represented 'the other side of the Betty Draper household.' This period in the 1960s was as much a transforming era for white women as for black: the identities of many black women were sublimated by the needs of their white mistresses, whose identities were in turn defined only by their husbands' needs and ambitions. I'd say the biggest problem in the book lies in the lack of definition of that second disempowerment; there is absolutely nothing in the book to humanize the 'evil white mistresses,' nothing to explain or even contextualize their brutality. As a consequence, we end up with rubbish like "Oh, we love her like family, but can you imagine if she turned up at the DAR meeting?" The Help is not a social comedy, and such flippancy is not welcome.

If you took the book at face value, you would believe that the reason these 'evil white women' maintain these attitudes is snobbery and a particularly perverse version of 'keeping up with the joneses', downplaying the more insidious societal frameworks that actually entrenched these power structures. Again and again, the men in the novel (including the senators and governors who are actually responsible for segregationist policies) are shown to be more compassionate and to have a more thoughtful perspective on the issue, even if political reality prevents them from acting. The women, on the other hand, just follow what their friends do, and then brag about it. It's impossible to believe that an entire social structure could have been maintained on so flimsy a foundation.

This leads to a secondary problem, where plot threads dealing with the 'evil white mistresses' are not resolved in any satisfactory manner. Nowhere is the problem more evident than with the 'villain' of the piece, an ex-sorority shrew named Hilly. You can almost see her twirling her mustache in the last 3rd of the novel. Before that, she is certainly a horrible woman, but you can see that many of her negative aspects come from a limitless quest for power, coupled with a heinous lack of self-awareness. Then, all of a sudden, she becomes Dr. Evil, which makes absolutely no sense for a character who's entire reason for being is standing up as the voice of moral righteousness in the community. So Stockett's choice for Hilly to take this turn on the road to an evil mountain lair does not serve as a revelation of deep seated hatred so much as it becomes a magical plot cop-out.

But even that story does not peter out as badly as Celia Foote's. Celia is introduced as a white trash interloper who married the uptown boy that Hilly once had her eye on. Stockett repeatedly alludes to the horrors of Celia's home life that she would do anything to avoid, but never fills in any blanks beyond that. We learn at various points that she's a drunk, that she's unable to carry a baby to term, that she really could be the town slattern if she so aspired. That she looks like Marilyn Monroe. That she is the laziest human being alive. But all of these points are mere attributes, they do not amount to character. In every one of her scenes, I was waiting for some sort of point to the story that failed to materialize. If the only point is that indentured servitude is not the sorriest fate in the South, well that's pretty weak, and grossly undermines the stories of the black women.

But I suspect that the real problem is that there are too many characters and too many stories and too many points to make and so they all suffer in the end. So many characters are introduced, and then take up so many pages of the novel, and yet they don't change in the slightest. We see no development, no change in their attitude one way or the other, which should happen given how many words are devoted to them.

But, as I mentioned, the novel was not really intended to tell their stories, but to bring out the stories of the voiceless servants who have always been treated as background rather than foreground. But let's be honest, the book is short, and there is ample room to give enough detail for characters to be more than caricatures.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind for any new readers of the book is that in the end, it's a light book that's not really intended to take readers out of their comfort zone, but to remind them of the basic human compassion that can shine through even in the most humiliating of circumstances. It definitely succeeds in that, even though it doesn't have the socio-anthropological intrigue that it could have had.

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