My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I sat down one evening to skim through the first few pages of The Help to determine if I would proceed with a full read. I was immediately hooked and a couple of sessions later I closed the back cover. I didn’t have to work hard- this is a compulsively readable novel. That this is such an easy read troubles me. Its subject matter is as heavy as Mississippi in August, but the tone is often as breezy as girls’ night out in Venice Beach.
For all the accolades and attention Kathryn Stockett has received for telling the hidden-in-plain-sight truth of Jim Crow South in the 1960’s, I felt cheated by her story-telling. Aibileen and Minny, black women who have spent their lives in service to white families, are portrayed with unsentimental clarity. These women are the real stories, the voices I most wanted to hear. Yet it was as if Stockett didn’t trust her ability to carry a full novel in these characters. Instead, she relies on Skeeter – a young white woman who is having a “Eureka” moment of conscience and self-awakening – as the central protagonist. Skeeter is not a compelling narrator and every moment with her was a moment stolen from the characters whose lives should have been the central focus, the eponymous “Help”.
In addition, the character of Celia is wasted in a mush of contradictions and implausible behavior. It makes zero sense that a tough-as-nails girl from the hollers couldn’t boil water for coffee. Her presence in the plot is inexplicable, as she neither evolves as a character nor moves the story along. Oddly enough, I adored her. I just wish she would have been allowed to grow and participate in the story, instead of remaining its unfunny punchline.
The narrative comes alive in the delicate dance of shame, anger, control and love experienced by so many of the characters, white and black. The real story is rock-solid Aibileen in the Leefolt home as the family cook, maid and child care provider; it is rebel Minny submitting to her abusive husband, determined to keep her family together; it is society-grasping Elizabeth Leefolt, as she feels the desperate tug between convention and her conscience, which struggles to rise from the swamp of racial segregation; it is the deep love between Aibileen and little Mae Mobley Leefolt, contrasted brilliantly with the cold affect Mae Mobley receives from her emotionally stunted mother. These relationships are so compelling, you know that Stockett is writing from her heart, and they are what make this a beautiful read.
The awakening of the women who constitute “The Help” as they tell their stories is also remarkable. But again, the milquetoast and ironically ambitious Skeeter, with her hapless attempts at romance, gets in the way. There is a moment when her motives at gathering and publishing these stories are questioned by an embittered maid, Gretchen, but Stockett drops this in and quickly retreats. It’s as if she isn’t certain herself who should profit from the telling of these stories, the white woman who can walk away from controversy to a shiny new life in New York City, or the black women who risk everything- their jobs, their homes, their lives- to share the truth.
There is potential for a much more profound and revelatory story from this gifted and passionate writer. It made me long for the heartbreaking honesty and poetry of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and the novel that changed forever how whites told the story of Jim Crow, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. These novels have withstood the test of history; I don’t see The Help holding the same ground.