Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Help

Just because a book is a runaway bestseller doesn't mean it can't be good and Kathryn Stockett's phenomenally successful narrative about "colored" maids and their employers in 1960s Mississippi has somehow struck a deep chord in the country.

Boomers of course can still dimly recognize a familiar world from our childhood, though, as with "Mad Men," it's amazing to see how much attitudes have changed. Stockett's book may not be literature for the ages -- I doubt, for instance, that it will have the staying power of To Kill a Mockingbird -- but it is somehow comforting for our generation to see how successful the civil rights struggle has been.

It's timely, too, when you see Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's recent gaffe about racist city councils in his youth not being so bad -- some people still don't get it.

Reading this book has been a particularly interesting experience because I started the audiobook version on a long drive to North Carolina, but for various reasons got nowhere near the end and decided to read the hard copy to finish it. The novel, which features three different narrators -- two of the maids and a white woman, lends itself marvelously to audio treatment. The audio version had three different readers, whose speech and dialect perfectly matched the characterization of the novel. It was jarring, then, to switch to print and to see the Southern black dialect rendered in cold black and white after the comfortable, soothing voices of the readers.

The Help is about a young white woman's effort to write a novel about how the maids viewed their mistresses, an enterprise fraught with peril for all involved. The fear engendered by the racial oppression of Jackson society in the early 1960s is palpable throughout the novel and creates a constant tension. The three narrators -- Skeeter, the would-be author, recently returned home from college; Aibileen, an elderly, thoughtful maid; and Minny, a cantankerous, angry woman with a heart of gold -- tell the story in tag-team fashion, the one picking up where the other left off, providing three different views of the characters. All three are true heroines, though each flawed in her own way. The characterization of each is so sensitive, so detailed, and so well-rounded that all three come alive for the reader as real people.

Some of the other characters are less successfully rendered. Hilly Holbrook, the pushy president of the Junior League and a bigot without boundaries, would put the Wicked Witch of the East to shame for sheer meanness. There is not a scintilla of sympathy for this woman, whose cruelty is heartless and strikes everyone from her helpless maids to her hapless mother.

Other characters also have trouble emerging from two dimensions, though the author has some success with Skeeter's mother and her boyfriend, the son of a state senator. Celia Foote, a buxom rube marked as poor white trash, remains perplexing as a character, and her husband is a cipher. All of the men, in fact, are weak, bewildered creatures in this book club favorite.

The author maintains the tension, the sense of danger -- marked by cruel events such as the blinding of one maid's grandson and the jailing of another maid for petty theft -- until the climax. But then she seems to flinch, and the climax is somewhat anticlimactic.

The killing of Medgar Evers in Jackson and the assassination of President Kennedy are the historic backdrop for this novel of racism, as well as Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech in Washington. It is a time capsule that shows us how far we have come in race relations, and, in a way, how far we have yet to go. For many of these prejudices are still with us. The efforts of these three women narrators, though, inspire the hope that we shall continue to overcome them.

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