Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, 2009

It's a heartening thing that a novel like The Help has become a runaway blockbuster. Today's publishing world is a rather sad place, where James Patterson mysteries and Danielle Steele romances rule the roost. The Help is un-schmaltzy and it resolutely refuses to pander; it's not the kind of book that generally strikes a chord with a wide audience. Thankfully, it has, and Kathryn Stockett absolutely deserves her success. She's written a wonderful book.

The Help takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, during the birth of the civil rights movement. Jackson is a repressed, insular place, riddled with invisible social lines between black and white, employers and their help. Skeeter Phelan, an opinionated young woman fresh out of college, wants to change things. Aibileen, an elderly black maid, wants to finally tell all the stories she's gathered over a lifetime of serving white people. Together with a third maid named Minny, Skeeter and Aibileen join together to write a book, a book that will blow Jackson's secrets wide open.

Stockett tells her story from the perspective of all three main characters, each getting to tell her part. Minny and Aibileen's sections are written in dialect, a choice that was controversial for some reviewers. I personally found the narration to be convincingly written and in good taste. Stockett is nothing if not bold.

The novel's greatest strength lies in its three main characters. Many authors struggle to create just one memorable, iconic character; Stockett creates three.

Skeeter, the young white woman at the center of the story, is the de facto protagonist. I have a feeling Skeeter may join Huck Finn and Scout Finch in the annals of Southern literature. She emerges as an entirely lovable, well-rounded character. Stockett is not afraid to make hard for her, either. By the end of the novel, Skeeter has lost all of her friends, her boyfriend and most of the important relationships in her life, yet she remains optimistic for the future.

Although somewhat flatter than the other two (and less actively involved in the plot), I charge any reader not to love Aibileen. She is undoubtedly the soul of the book, the voice of wisdom and reason both to the reader and to the other characters.

But I think Minny is truly Stockett's biggest achievement. This woman should be unlikable: she's temperamental, brash, blunt and unforgiving, yet she emerges as the novel's antihero who slowly reveals herself as a kind, courageous person. Her relationship with her naive young employer is one of the book's finest subplots, alternately funny and touching.

It is this mixture of humor (often dark humor) and poignancy that Stockett has perfected. Her style is smooth, eminently readable and fully-formed. There's no evidence that this is her first novel:

Mother pulls the pad of paper from under the covers, tucked in the invisible pocket she's had sewn in every garment, where she keeps antivomiting pills, tissues. Tiny dictatorial lists. Even though she is so weak, I'm surprised by the steadiness of her hand as she writes on the "Do Not Wear" list: "Gray, shapeless, mannishly tailored pants." She smiles, satisfied.

It sounds macabre, but when Mother realized that after she's dead, she won't be able to tell me what to wear anymore, she came up with this ingenious postmortem system. She's assuming I'll never go buy new, unsatisfactory clothes on my own. She's probably right.
---(page 374)

Few writers could tackle a subject like the civil rights movement of the '60s with the grace and fairness that Stockett does. She does an excellent job of portraying the culture in all its complexity, letting us see everyone's perspective. She masterfully shows that the racism of the period was deeply ingrained in everyone-- black and white. She also restrains herself from getting overly syrupy when it comes to the barriers broken down by Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. The novel doesn't end with all the residents of Jackson accepting each other.

I have a few small problems with the book. Stockett does have a tendency towards spelling things out, particularly thematic elements. A little subtlety might have been nice. There's also one notably poor characterization in a book full of excellent ones: Hilly Holbrook, Skeeter's nasty best friend and the book's antagonist, who is too irredeemably, cartoonishly evil. These are small issues, though, that rarely detract from the novel.

Overall, The Help is a fabulous novel, a well-paced, emotional human drama set against a time of historic cultural change. This is one to set on the shelf next to The Secret Life of Bees (2002) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). I wouldn't be surprised if Kathryn Stockett ends up as this generation's Harper Lee.

NEXT UP: Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex, by Eoin Colfer. Yeah, I know it's a kid's book. I can't read a kid's book every now and then?

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