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The Road More Traveled

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

Reviewed by Erin Aubry Kaplan
Ms. Magazine

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.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Help
    Used Hardcover $4.50

2 Responses to "The Road More Traveled"

    Octavia Spencer March 10th, 2009 at 1:57 am

    I just read your review of THE HELP and would like to weigh in on this discussion. As one who is a complete product of the South, I'm sure I won't be the first, nor the last black person to say THE HELP is a WONDERFUL read.

    First of all, I was given the manuscript and asked by the author to read and give my honest opinion of it. Then, I was told that one of the characters was loosely based on certain aspects of MY personality. I cringed when I heard this, as I'd only met Ms. Stockett on three prior occasions, and wondered what she might have gleaned from those encounters that compelled her in such a way. Afterwards, I read Minny and knew; but, we'll come back to that.

    The dialects: Granted, as I read the opening pages, I found the voice in which she wrote Aibileen a bit jarring. However, I decided to withhold judgement and continue reading. Needless to say, I'm so thrilled that I did. The stereotypical depictions I had expected to find weren't that at all. I realized that Stockett was writing women of a certain socio-economic and educational level, not commenting on race.

    Aibileen and Minny: Neither are "stock" characters as you put it. While both ARE archetypes of the black matriarch, their views on society are vastly different and evolve in the end. Both characters exhibit profound depth and intelligence, attributes not often bestowed by white writers on black women, especially in period pieces. "A shiny hope rose in me" as I continued to read.

    The theme: On its surface, this novel is about race relations, though its core requires much more depth OF THE READER to truly be understood. Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter are masterfully crafted with a common bond; a gilded thread--if I may-- in that, each exemplifies THE GOLDEN RULE. They are decent, progressive, intelligent women who embark on a nail biting journey that I'm so glad I was able to experience.

    BACK TO MINNY: In closing Erin, I would be remiss if I didn't compliment you on such a beautifully written, evocative review, though our opinions of the book differ IMMENSELY. I also thank you for exalting Minny to the status of "most compelling" as a character. I will take that as the ultimate compliment as I do Kathryn Stockett's interpretation of Minny as me.

    Onyx July 23rd, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Hello Ms. Kaplan,

    I enjoyed your review, though I can see my comment is quite late. I guess I'm probably in the minority but I truly detested this novel. Not just for the vernacular that made all the black characters sound like Amos n' Andy (Minny using "Cadillac" for "cadiac" Aibileen using "pneumonia" for "ammonia" And not just for the stripping of regional dialect for the white characters, which made them sound as if they resided on Martha's vineyard,but in the history of segregation no white woman has ever been convicted of lynching, raping or running an innocent black person out of town. And yet this is what the book implies. That during segregation, white women were the culprits.
    If you notice, white males are presented as liberals and downright respectful of their black help. Hilly is the face of segregation in this novel, which I feel makes light of a time period where both whites and blacks lost their lives because of racism.

    I cannot recommend the book, though I understand how others could love it. And there are authors who skillfully take on the voices
    of other cultures (like Richard Price and Dennis Lehane. I even enjoyed Hilary Jorday's Mudbound)

    But in this novel, African Americans speak of their own skin as if they hate being black (Aibileen comparing her color to a roach)
    The African American Male is also unfairly denigrated in the novel, and this was at a time where they were the main targets
    of murder and assaults. The book makes reference to them being "no-account" and Minny talks about how plenty of black men
    leave their families. There is no basis for this statement during 1962 and imho it was uncalled for by the author.

    Yet white males are treated with kit gloves, while history shows that they kept the wheels of injustice turning, especially in the south. I feel Stockett is a fine writer, but in this book, she struck out.

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