Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Quick read fails to properly gauge the meaning of Help

While in transit, I always find myself studying what others have brought to pass the time. Is it something from work, something mindless, something to savor? Despite the crowds it may be among the only meditative moments people have regularly, before stepping out into the flurry of activity that usually marks their lives. On the New Jersey Transit, I sat next to a young woman reading a copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I’d seen the yellow jacket frequently throughout the summer and had had it recommended to me once or twice. I asked her how she liked it. “It’s pretty good,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I started it yesterday,” she added while demonstrating that she was more than halfway finished.
My conclusion, when I read the book a few weeks later, was about the same. It reads well, you can’t really put it down for long, and in the end it is little better than okay.
Stockett chooses three Southern women to recount their stories. Aibileen has brought up 17 white children and is currently raising Mae Mobley, whose own mother lacks real affection for her child. Aibileen loves the children whom she is hired to care for. After the first few she learned to detach before their environment developed their perception of color. Aibileen lives in Jackson, Mississippi, and at the time her narrative begins it is 1960. Stocket has chosen a particularly fraught moment in history during which Aibileen and other black maids make the decision to tell their stories of what it is like to be the help.
Their confessions are prompted by Stockett’s second narrator, Skeeter Phelan. She had a black nurse of her own, Constantine, who has disappeared without a trace while Skeeter was in her last year of college. Skeeter does not conform to the Southern standards of femininity and beauty, she is too tall, her hair is unmanageable and since graduating she has harbored ambitions of becoming a journalist. Given a somewhat implausible chance by an editor in New York, Skeeter embarks on her exposé of what really transpires between white mistresses and their maids.
The Help is full of the drama of a society constructed on an explicit understanding of manners and demeanor. Minny, the sass-talking maid who has to date lost 19 jobs, and is the most feisty of the three narrators. She currently works for Celia, a woman of poor white upbringing, who doesn’t understand that nothing she does will provide her with entrance into the world of highfaluting Southerners.
Much of The Help’s content is the politics of feminine society. The dynamics between the maid and her mistress are manifestations of other personality traits. It is disheartening to see these catty dynamics unfolding across the page. But Minny’s exclusion from white society and Celia’s are hardly parallel injustices. Crossing boundaries for Minny has far more dire consequences than for Celia. Although it is the men who perform the lynching’s and other atrocities, the maids make it clear that it is the wrath of the mistress that should be most feared.
The largest flaw of the novel is one that the characters frequently acknowledge. That is Skeeter’s failure to comprehend the danger of what she is asking. The weight of the risk is never depicted with enough force. The book contains a few reports of brutality and unjust behavior, but the era Stockett is dealing with is the early 1960s in Mississippi. Her inability to drive home the gravity of the Aibileen and Skeeter’s endeavor deprives The Help of being a serious novel about the realities of the time.

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