Monday, May 30, 2011
The Help: Nope.
Personally, I rather expect to be challenged by any novel about racism in the United States. Yet, despite its focus on unmasking racist conduct against African American domestic workers by their white employers in Civil Rights Era Mississippi, this book feels tepid to me from page one to page 524. It could be that I've read too many novels treating thematically related subject matter that are simply much better wrought. (The reasons are myriad, and most require exposing you to multiple 'spoilers', so hop to the 'read more' link below for just a taste of my style and plot-based concerns and hit this worthwhile external link - warning: mature yet important content there - for far more serious thematic critiques. OR, if you're thinking of reading The Help, stay here on this page for a more general response.)
Sure, if you're headed on vacation and just looking for a book to pass the time, this one might be fine. Or, if you've had little exposure to the concerns of the Civil Rights Era, particularly in Mississippi, this will be an "easy listening" historical fiction to get you started, and might possibly pique your interest to read some of the authors I mention at the very end of this post, or do research online, or screen the recent PBS "Freedom Riders" documentary. If that's what you're looking for, well, still, you could do better, but if you must...
But bottom line: I'm the one. Overall, I didn't care for it. I learned nothing, because I already know a fair bit about that time period in the American South. And a lot of it felt saccharine and borderline stereotypical. So I'm simply grateful that we had beautiful weather last week when I read it, because sitting outside with a tall glass of iced tea under the beautiful birches made the long, mildly entertaining slog a bit more bearable.
Action: I'll try to take on Aibileen's habit of generosity, and of offering intentions daily, in writing. She pens her prayers every evening, and - seemingly through this daily practice - stokes her own fundamental grace to become a much sought-after conduit for near-miracles, not to mention a fine writer. I think I'll strive for gratitude and also follow her example: her prayers are never for her, always for others. (Once again, any book experience can be at least partially redeemed by reaching for a positive action in response to it...)
For a little longer rant (but negative, I warn you)...
And another thing! SPOILER ALERT!
I'm just scratching the surface here of my own issues about the writer's style, plot, and character development. But I think that my real underlying concern about how this author pretends to treat hard truths but, in fact, skates over many of them and gussies up others to make them palatable for a wide contemporary audience is the true reasons why I didn't like The Help.
Let's start with this: I felt hard-pressed to find a single sentence in this book that I'd be proud of writing or that I was tempted to re-read or read aloud just for the beauty or fun of it. I kept my radar up, hoping for some sentence-level redemption. Despite my earnest hopes, Stockett's language remained merely serviceable for the most part, pedestrian, from start to finish.
And then there's Stockett's penchant to tell rather than show...
It comes as no surprise, when reading the author's short essay (pp. 525-530), to find that much of the novel is based (albeit loosely) on her family's history and her own experiences growing up. Hence the preponderance of half-drawn characters, actions-sans-motivation, and generally surfacey writing throughout. It's a typical , somewhat paradoxical issue for fiction writers drawing on real life: Often, what actually happens to us - or is family legend - isn't believable when we use it as the basis for fiction. The writer understands the characters and events in the context of her entire life, and she assumes readers will similarly contextualize and add the salient details from her own - unshared - past experiences, so she doesn't provide adequate background & development for her story.
Just a few (SPOILER alert!) examples of this 'failure to disclose' that makes this story ring hollow (and there are many others, but I'll let you find them...):
a. Hilly's an unrepentant racist, Elizabeth's a cold-yet-easily-bullied-and-utterly-obtuse milquetoast, yet Skeeter, the even-keeled, energetic, progressive, and independent protagonist, has been their close friend since grade school. Hmmm. Why? Proximity just isn't enough excuse in fiction, although it may sometimes be the case in real life, so a little more backstory would go a long way.
b. And how about her mom's random, just-in-the-nick-of-time self-willed healing from stage four cancer? Possible in real life? I suppose. Plausible in fiction? Nope.
c. Skeeter tells 20 different publishing houses that she wrote the book (on her resume), so they all know where it takes place and who's culpable. Nobody tips off the press? Seriously?
d. All the major characters survive, and their book propels each of them into "their best lives", despite a few major bumps in their respective roads. How is this 'happily ever after' a responsible conclusion to propose - even in a fiction - in this historical context?
And finally, how's this for unabashed authorial abdication of responsibility? In her closing essay, Stockett asserts: "I'm afraid I have told too little. Not just that life was so much worse for many black women working in the homes in Mississippi, but also that there was so much more love between white families and black domestics than I had the ink or the time to portray." Um. You had 524 pages. And you could have written more if you chose to. It's not about the ink. It's not about the time. Kathryn, you just didn't have the will, or you didn't have the talent.
So, readers, I say: Go read Morrison or Walker or Hurston or Wright or Baldwin or Angelou or... Or go read To Kill A Mockingbird again. You'll be better off.