Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 13, 2011

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

The HelpI’ve read very little of this year’s Orange Prize longlist, but I had The Help on my Kindle after hearing enthusiastic comments from various friends so I decided to read it before the award announcement on April 20th.

It’s a debut novel which apparently raced to the top of the bestsellers list – and there are nearly 5000 reviews of it on Good Reads and nearly 600 on Library Thing.  There can’t be much more to say about the book itself that hasn’t already been said, but what I noticed about the commentary is that for some readers, it touches a nerve still raw in the US.

The story is set in 1962-64, as great changes swept through the United States and elsewhere.  Stockett fiddles a bit with history to make Bob Dylan’s iconic ‘The Times They Are a Changin’ fit with major events like the assassination of Kennedy, but she seems true to the period in the sense that in the South the changing role of women and the Civil Rights movement were forcing conservatives to confront changes that were more than merely discomfiting.  Stockett tackles these Black/White relationships from a perspective I haven’t come across before.

It’s the story of privileged White woman (Eugenie ‘Skeeter’ Phelan) in Jackson Mississippi, and how – apparently destined for spinsterhood because she’s too tall and awkward – she decides to try her hand at writing.  She ends up co-authoring a book with two domestic servants on the other side of the colour bar  (Aibileen and Minny) – but it must be done anonymously because of the threat their friendship is to the status quo  and because the maids’ revelations about their employers’ treatment would preclude future employment for them anywhere.

The most common criticism of The Help is that it isn’t possible for a White author (Stockett) to know what it was really like for Black women and that the voice of the two Black narrators is not authentic.   These critics say that by definition there could not be real friendship between women across the colour bar because of their unequal relationship.  Real friends can be honest with one another, but a Black employee dare not tell a friendly employer that she looks ridiculous in a shocking pink evening frock with too much cleavage or that she is never going to fit into the local social circle.  Minny with her chequered history of employment has enough problems because she speaks her mind, without her sabotaging fledging friendships as well.

Others say that although there is some reference to violence against Blacks, the book sanitizes the situation because it’s more focussed on social ostracism (for Skeeter) and the power that female white employers had over their domestic staff (Aibileen and Minny) than on the violence that would have been meted out to them had they been discovered.  I think this commentary is interesting.  I’d have thought that after To Kill a Mockingbird there wouldn’t be too many people who didn’t know about White violence against Blacks in the South, how the legal system was subverted against them and how White activists of any kind were at risk as well.  What Stockett does that seems new and interesting to me is that she delves into the world of women and their pernicious power. Their power means the difference between having work and not having it, having time off to look after dependent family, having the money to pay for phone bills and for educational opportunities for children.  An accusation of theft is all it takes.

White womens they like to keep they hands cleanThey got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with em.

Skeeter’s mother is delighted when the man-drought ends and her daughter has a boyfriend, but Stockett isn’t writing a conventional romance.  Skeeter doesn’t seem to have read any feminist literature but she does have a mind of her own and it’s clear from the outset that the price of ‘belonging’ in the women’s social circle is too high.  ‘The book, now that it is going again, is more important than anything’ she says before long, and it’s not hard to predict where that will lead.

Of more interest is how the plot resolves around the antagonist, Miss Hilly – Queen Bee and Skeeter’s friend.  Some of Stockett’s critics say that her depiction of the White women in general, and Miss Hilly the bully in particular is stereotyped.  She should have some redeeming features, they say, (as Mother eventually does)  but I think the part of the lure of the story is whether Miss Hilly is going to get her comeuppance or not because at one time or another we’ve all had to endure the ‘most popular girl’  making life a misery.

Amongst the enthusiastic reviews on Good Reads there are occasional voices concerned about Skeeter’s exploitation of the Black women. When she gets a job writing a ‘help’ column for a newspaper, she doesn’t have a clue about stains or sanitation,  because she (like all other women of her class) has domestic help.  So she has to ask the help for advice.   Not her own, but Aibileen, domestic help of her friend Elizabeth.  Aibileen is highly literate and more than capable of writing this column herself, as indeed she is capable of writing the women’s stories that Skeeter collects.  There are also objections to the White-Person-as-Saviour role of Skeeter rather than Black Women taking the initiative themselves.

These criticisms suggest to me that Stockett must have had some courage herself to wade into this minefield of race relations, though the book’s runaway sales clearly indicate that she has survived it well enough.  I found it interesting reading.

Author: Kathryn Stockett
Title: The Help
Publisher: Penguin 2009 (Kindle Edition)
ISBN: 9780141930015
Source: Personal library.

Availability

Fishpond: The Help

BTW this is the Orange Prize longlist:

  • Clare Clark: Savage Lands
  • Amanda Craig: Hearts and Minds
  • Roopa Farooki: The Way Things Look to Me
  • Rebecca Gowers: The Twisted Heart
  • M.J. Hyland: This Is How (on my TBR)
  • Sadie Jones: Small Wars
  • Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (on my TBR)
  • Laila Lalami: Secret Son
  • Andrea Levy: The Long Song (on my TBR)
  • Attica Locke: Black Water Rising
  • Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall  See my review
  • Maria McCann: The Wilding
  • Nadifa Mohamed: Black Mamba Boy
  • Lorrie Moore: A Gate at the Stairs
  • Monique Roffey: The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
  • Amy Sackville: The Still Point
  • Kathryn Stockett: The Help
  • Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

Responses

  1. I ve avoid this book due to hype but did read a similar book the queen of palmyra set in same time and in the south of the us ,the orange list is a strong one this time lots of wonderful books on it ,all the best stu

  2. I read this book last year and found it intriguing for all of the reasons you listed above. There were moments when I wondered whether it was Stockett’s story to tell, but then again, that is the freedom of fiction – the possibility of inhabiting voices other than the writer’s own.
    Btw, I just wanted to note that the longlist you have included is for 2010, which was won by Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna. Coincidentally, the 2011 shortlist was announced today, but curiously, isn’t up on the Orange Prize website just yet.

    • Hello Melanie, nice to meet you through ANZ LitLovers and thank you for taking the time to comment:)
      Here in Australia we have a similar kind of ambivalence about who can tell stories of our indigenous people, but I have an open mind about it now that indigenous people are writing their own stories themselves. Strong, powerful and authentic voices (such as Kim Scott and Alexis Wright) are, I think, taking their rightful place as the pre-eminent storytellers of their people but that does not preclude others (such as Xavier Herbert) from telling stories too.
      Thanks for the heads-up about 2010, I’d completely forgotten about The Lacuna win, even though it’s on my TBR!

      • Lisa, nice to meet you too. I agree, I think it is impossible to make rules, as such, about who can tell/write stories – there would be no such thing as historical or speculative fiction if we could only write what we (or our direct ancestors) had experienced…and in the end, so much comes down to the quality of the telling and the acknowledgement of the nuance and multiple truths.
        The 2011 list looks very exciting – almost half, I think, are debut authors…now I’ve only got to find the time to work through them!

        • Oh it’s just impossible to keep up, isn’t it? I go through phases of thinking, no, I’m going to work on the TBR, and then being seduced by some gorgeous new title that begs to be read.
          Still, better to have too many books than not enough.


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