You’d be hard-pressed nowadays to find someone who hasn’t at least heard of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, especially with the almost constant awards going to the film, and now it’s even scored a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Since its first publication in 2009, this book has caught on like a house afire (forgive the cliched Southern expression, it seemed appropriate).
Reading the novel with only movie previews and word-of-mouth to go on, I had a general idea of the plot: rich Southern white girl in the 1960s talks to African-American maids for the real story of how they are treated. Or, better yet, a sassy Southern tale of heart and humor and the power of a book.
What this white girl didn’t quite grasp was the fact that, if they did actually write this book in Mississippi in the early 60s–if they were caught, they wouldn’t be in trouble–they’d be in danger. Like Skeeter Phelan, I mys didn’t see the whole picture.
And after reading it, I’m still not sure I see it, as Stockett stopped short of any real horrors of race problems in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. The novel mentions and glosses over anything really horrific–sexual abuse, physical abuse, etc., and leaves the reader with a bright, happy ending. In 1964. In Jackson, Mississippi.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, make no mistake. It was a highly entertaining read, the stories fascinating and the voices flowed naturally. But it was missing something.
As a story, as a novel, it works very well. As a historically accurate depiction of a tumultuous time and place, it paints everything as sunshine-y yellow as the novel’s cover. So take it for what it is, not what others want to make it out to be. It’s not a tract about race relations, it’s not trying to dig deep and scare the heebie-jeebies out of anyone thinking anything somewhat racist. It’s trying to be a story of the differences and similarities of these women.
I think I appreciated Skeeter’s story most of all–the way she wanted to be a part of the Southern society she’d known all her life, and at the same time to become an independent woman.
In an essay at the end of the book, Stockett herself talks about Demetrie, her family’s maid, who died when Stockett was sixteen. She laments never having asked Demetrie about what it was like, being a black woman–imagine the story she could have told if she had.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett is available for purchase at Nicola’s Books, and for loan at all branches of the Ann Arbor District Library.