Reviewed by Erin Aubry Kaplan
In her tale of an aspiring white writer in 1960s Mississippi who decides to secretly compile the untold stories of black domestic workers, Kathryn Stockett attempts to work out her own complicated feelings about race relations in her native South. She throws herself into the attempt with gusto and gravitas, a risk that pays off to a point: The Help is buoyant in its most sober moments, occasionally insightful. Skeeter Phelan is a misfit, a 24-year-old college grad growing uneasy with the social hierarchies of home; the two black women who risk their lives and livelihoods to help collect the interviews she seeks, Aibileen and Minny, are sympathetically if somewhat predictably drawn. Yet the buoyancy often undermines the book's more serious intentions; ultimately, The Help can't decide if it's modern Faulkner or pop lit with some racial lessons thrown in for fiber.
It's not that Stockett softens the truth. In her portrait of Jackson, Miss., whites are the clear oppressors, and blacks have no choice but to submit.
One task Stockett sets for herself is to show that affection between maids and the white children they help raise can grow in the dry cracks of such a gross power imbalance. But those bonds are modest compared to the force of the oppression. For that reason, restive Minny emerges as the novel's most compelling character. She trusts no one white and only admits to a fleeting pity for her softhearted but softheaded "white lady" employer. Minny won't cross the color line; there's far too much water under the bridge for that. She can also be funny. Stockett's keen sense of the absurd, though often tipping into melodrama, is refreshing in an account of Southern racial dynamics -- a topic not known for its humor.
Other characters feel stock. Aibileen is a model of quiet suffering, while Skeeter, though likable, is too much the bewildered belle -- surprised to discover her lifelong friend Hilly Holbrook is a segregationist! Ironically, the white characters have the least dimension, probably because Stockett is so intent on doing justice to the blacks she was never encouraged to know while growing up. Still, it's disappointing that the white socialite Hilly winds up as the wicked witch of the South, bent on repression and revenge. Whites need to live in the novel too, or the South feels like a straw man that honorable black maids knock over just by showing up. The heavy half of the Southern power imbalance is assumed here, but not explored. It's too bad, because hysterical Hilly is simply not a worthy enemy.
And then there's the matter of a white author writing black voices. As an African American, I accept black idioms as an aesthetic choice, but they nonetheless grated. Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett's white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have? There's also the narrative rut of downtrodden but world-wise blacks showing white people their own souls, leading them out of a spiritual wilderness to their better selves. The Help has much more on its mind than that, but it doesn't avoid going down a road too well traveled.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a freelance writer and a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times.
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