The Help by Kathryn Stockett

February 20, 2010

Wasn’t that the 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.

Kathryn Stockett “truly prize[s]” that “one line”. If that sounds to you like a “line” to be “prized”, then this is your book. If not, not.

The Help is one of those books that starts with an intriguing idea and good intentions. On those two strengths, it gains a large audience. I suppose there is a little more going for it. The themes it hoped to address are important and worthy of exploration; the story moves along even if the movement is utterly predictable; the characters are likeable if decidedly not complex. Basically, the book does not demand much from the reader other than a tolerance for, or oblivion to, mediocre writing and poor editing.

Did I mention well-intentioned? Because the novel is well-intentioned. There is some heart in there. I can see how it tugs at a certain kind of reader, keeps them going, makes them feel warm and fuzzy. After all, the book was essentially Kathryn Stockett’s labor of appreciation, if not love, for the woman who helped her parents raise her.

The book opens being narrated by Aibileen in August of 1962. Aibileen is a maid for a wealthy family in Jackson, Mississippi. She speaks in a distinctive dialect:

Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime.

One of Aibileen’s best friends, Minny, is another maid-narrator with her own chapters. Where Aibileen is a wise, quiet, and strong woman, Minny is loud, brash, and wise too. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is the third narrator. She a white woman who speak perfect English. Same as all her friends.

An interesting authorial choice of Stockett’s is that Aibileen speaks and writes in dialect, but is able to transcribe Skeeter’s and the other white women’s conversations with impeccable attention to their perfect diction and grammar. She’s a human tape recorder is what she is.

My tone betrays me. I think the book, while meaning well, fails to engage important racial issues or to provide insight into the mindset of “the help” in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. It is quite revealing regarding the way in which “enlightened” white people who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi view the world.

The plot involves various struggles and difficulties faced by the oppressed black maids. The struggles and difficulties are almost entirely caused by or exacerbated by their rich, white, female employers who, except for the clueless Skeeter (unintentionally modeled a little too faithfully on the author) and the formerly-poor and currently-stupid Celia, are almost uniformly mean, racist, petty, spineless, conniving, or some combination thereof. Perhaps, this is to make up for the dialect thing.

Don’t ask about the men.

Skeeter wants to be a writer, Aibileen wants to raise (white) children, and Minny is a necessary device to move the plot, inject some predictable unpredictability, and ease some of Aibileen’s load as the prototypical “help”. Skeeter ends up hitting on the idea of writing about life in Jackson, Mississippi from the perspective of the maids.

The dialect issue is a problem. It is jarring, partly because Stockett seemed to go half-hearted. I say half-hearted both because only certain words seem affected (e.g. “Law” for “Lord”, “a” for “of”, and “on” for “going to” are the most prominent substitutions while you won’t find anyone dropping g’s; and the screwing up of noun-verb-tense agreement by “the help” like: “She glance out at the drive…” instead of “She glances…”) and because, as I already mentioned, the white characters have no ungrammatical tics or improper pronunciations. This is remarkable given that the dialectical distinctions are noted even among the white children, many of whom are primarily raised by the maids with poor diction.

“Aibee, my froat hurts.” [Four year-old Mae Mobley]

“I–I be right there, baby.” [Aibileen.]

Mae Mobley’s mother pays very little attention to her, while Mae Mobley seems to spend almost every waking moment with Aibileen. Yet, Mae Mobley, who can’t pronounce throat, can correctly manage noun-verb-tense agreement and Aibileen can’t, even when she writes.

To some extent maybe Stockett could not win or felt like she could not win. That might explain the seemingly tentative rendering of dialect. If she had tried to be perfectly faithful, she might seem even more out of touch. But, still, her choices in conveying dialect raise questions of authenticity and the author’s understanding of her characters. It conveys a sense that there is still, in her mind, an us and them, just that “[n]ot that much separates us.” But we are still separate.

This impression is reinforced by Skeeter’s unfortunate description of one of the maids she interviews:

“She spoke evenly and with care, like a white person.”

Yeah, from my childhood in the South, that’s definitely how I recall white southerners speaking: evenly and with care.

The characters reinforce this interpretation of Stockett’s own mindset. While the white characters are almost all bad and the black characters are almost all “good” (except for the men), only with the help of Skeeter do they find their voice. I found the plot condescending, in other words.

Some technical aspects of Stockett’s writing were annoying. A small point is her transparent use of “the Terrible Awful Thing” which, of course, is only called by the name “Terrible Awful” until late in the book to maintain some suspense. The thing is neither terrible nor awful.

[Another irritatingly bad feature was the cliched characterization of villains. For instance,] Hilly, the primary villain, suffers from a cold sore on her lip. [edited 6-8-10 thanks to Ramsey’s comment below]

I should point out the good too. The best sentence in the book (that I recall) is when Skeeter describes her mother driving:

At the end of the lane, she puts on her blinker like she’s doing brain surgery and creeps the Cadillac out onto the County Road.

The occasional well-wrought sentence does not make wading through some of the very poorly written sentences worth the slog. Then there is the fact that almost all of the characters pause at….odd times. And every pause is captured. I could barely stand it after awhile. On one Kindle screen, Skeeter gives us:

“Me too what…sir?”

“I don’t…dislike you, sir,” I say, shifting in my flats.

“I know he was very…upset,” I say, when truthfully, I know almost nothing at all.

Most of the other characters have the same…problem:

“You looked mighty…sure a yourself.” [Minny]

“So Hilly…she probably thinks I was fooling around with Johnny while they were still going steady then.” [Celia]

“And you look very…glamorous tonight.” [Julia Fenway]

“I was…feeling so warm in here.” [Elizabeth]

“These next few months are going to be…pretty hard.” [Doctor Neal]

Sometimes the pause is not an ellipsis, but a dash:

“I’ll be gone and–I don’t know.”

I don’t know either.

Perhaps my favorite example, in a “dark and stormy night” kind of way:

“This is what you’ve been writing about for the past twelve months? Not…Jesus Christ?”

“No, Stuart. Not…Jesus.”