For those who’ve not heard of the movie much less the book from which it was made: set in the early ’60s, it’s the story of three women living in Jackson, Mississippi as the civil rights movement was gaining strength, who end up writing a book about what it’s like to be a (black) maid in the deep South on the eve of sweeping social change. The author of the book within this book is Skeeter, a young white woman possessed of a bit of sheepskin from Ole Miss so fresh the ink hasn’t had a chance to dry, who wants to enter the publishing/writing industry but has no experience2. An exasperated and longsuffering but ultimately sympathetic publishing house employee suggests Skeeter write “something interesting”, probably expecting that she’ll never see the eager young rookie again. Skeeter ends up interviewing 13 of the maids in town, and as a result is blackballed by pretty much all her (white) friends from the Junior League and country club set for being a ‘segregationalist’.
Madam, I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird and Stockett’s book is no To Kill A Mockingbird.
Despite its length, the characters seem like cardboard cutouts and the relationships too hastily grown to genuine friendships. I don’t believe that Skeeter would be as quickly and completely accepted by the black community as she was, given the social climate described in the books. The maids opened up to Skeeter with a rapidity that surprised me, even guaranteed anonymity, and I’m not sure that she’d be lauded by black pastors as a true friend of the community. Despite the Yankee propaganda to the contrary, I’m sure there were such friendships, and genuine heartfelt ones at that. Otherwise, the Civil Rights movement might never have gotten off the ground. It’s just that there wasn’t sufficient buildup in the novel for me to buy into the friendships therein. I’m sure that many of the maids did feel great affection for the white children they raised. It’s just that Stockett seems to gloss over the fact that what she’s describing is, after all, an employer-employee relationship. I’m sure there were good employers, and she does include several examples of them.
The plot’s central message was hammered home with what was for me all the subtlety of a rhino charge–the only thing Stockett didn’t do was have Skeeter on the bus with Rosa Parks or something equivalent. For example, Medgar Evers is one of the black characters’ neighbors and is shot just “off screen”, shocking the black neighborhoods to a standstill and rendering life, oh just awfully inconvenient for the whites. (To be absolutely clear here, Medgar Evars did have neighbors, and his death did bring his community to a screeching halt, causing a good many people to rethink their stance on the civil rights issue(s). My problem here is that he wasn’t part of the book up to that point.) However, most of the events of the Civil Rights movement that we remember now, the march on Selma, sit ins at Woolworth’s, Martin Luther King’s speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and so on, appear only as briefly viewed news clips serving only to remind us again what tumultuous times the early 60s were without delving into any real detail of what the wider implications and repercussions were. Overall, a didactic work of chicklit fluff, deriving from subtler works which have proved they can stand the test of time.
That said, The Help is approachable and doesn’t carry all the cultural baggage of, say, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If it inspires any significant version of its readers to dig a little deeper and move on to read histories of the time, or genuine memoirs of people who lived through the ’60s, its worth the paper it was printed on. All I can think of, though, is Whoopi Goldberg’s story of seeing Star Trek and thinking “Wow, there’s a black woman on television and she isn’t a maid!”…I think I’ll go read Gone with the Wind to cleanse my literary palate before moving on to my next Recent Work of Popular Fiction.
I haven’t had much luck so far with what might loosely be called “book club picks”–Marley and Me, The Kite Runner, and just about any modern fiction included in “Oprah’s Club”, for a variety of reasons which will for the sake of brevity need to be put off until future entries, but which largely boil down to “They don’t live up to the hype.” (I’m not sure anything short of the Second Coming could live up to the hype that some of these books get.) For the sake of this blog, I finally took the plunge and started Stockett’s The Help…and I’m not sure The Help lives up to the hype any more than the others I’ve tried to read1, though I did at least finish it.
Would I buy it for my library? Yes, of course, just as I’d be sure to have Marley and Me or The Lovely Bones for as long as their popularity lasts/lasted. Would I suggest it to patrons looking for an introduction to the period and the subject? Yes, of course, but I’d be sure to have other similar books in the collection, starting with2 Barbara Neely’s Blanche White mysteries and the like.
1The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, for example
2I’m assuming the library’s already got To Kill a Mockingbird