You probably know what this book is about even if you haven’t read it, since it’s been on at the top of the bestseller lists for about a hundred weeks. But if you don’t, The Help is a story about the black maids of civil rights-era Jackson, Mississippi, and the white woman who decides to write a controversial book about their lives. That sentence is boring, right? That’s because you can read it and instantly know exactly what you’re going to get from this book: aging white debutantes who care only about appearance and the Junior League; black maids who run the ever-nuanced Black Woman in the South gamut from saintly to sassy. Now, I think The Help is a relatively well-written book about a subject that’s tricky to portray, and it’s a pleasure to read: great plot, lively, with a note of unexpectedness that keeps it out of Oprah territory. But unless you’re a sort of unwitting racist type and it helps you come to the revelation that yes, white people have (in general) historically been very cruel to those “beneath” them–The Help is really not as insightful or important as people seem to find it.
Kathryn Stockett, who is herself white (a fact that becomes pretty obvious as soon as you start reading), wrote this book out of guilt and affection for the black woman who raised her as a child in Jackson. She’s great at writing from the perspective of Skeeter, the awkward and mildly subversive white girl (who is repeatedly described as not-cute in the book but is obviously going to be played by Emma Stone in the movie version). Considering the touchiness of what she’s trying to do, she’s not too bad writing as either of her two black narrators, who were originally intended to be the only narrators before Stockett decided it was too weird.
But as a Duke professor asked, “Who gets to tell these stories in a way that they earn public attention?” We trust the filter of a white female author; we’re comfortable with the fact that she writes the black characters in dialect, while the white characters’ accents were probably just as strong. There’s a significant, subconscious current of nostalgia in the writing, and I suspect there’s a bit of old-South nostalgia in the reading of it too. But also, no one said that every book involving black people has to be Invisible Man. So kudos to Kathryn Stockett here for attempting to write about something real. I can overlook tacky earth-mama sentences like “Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that’s been burning me up all my life” for that.