Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

(This is a copy of the review I posted on Amazon for The Help, which I read for a book club. I was not nearly as intrigued as the majority of reviews, as you will see. There were other issues that I didn’t touch on for the sake of brevity, but I’m open to discussion on other aspects of the book.)

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help has a simple but intriguing message: relationships are complicated. Specifically, she seems to want to explain that the relationships between white employers and black maids in Jackson, Mississippi during the start of the Civil Rights era were much more complicated than they might seem to an outsider. This is sure to be the case and an insider view of the complex dynamics of this relationship would have been a insightful and thought-provoking novel. However, what was delivered fell far short of that goal. What ends up being “compelling and revelatory” about Stockett’s book is the idea that – gasp! – black maids have opinions on their white employers! Some of them hate their employers and some don’t! The potentially powerful exploration of the issue becomes diluted to the point of meaninglessness by the subservience of character development to plot development. Stockett knew what she wanted to happen in the book and by golly, it was going to happen, even if it meant  that she created stereotypes instead of fully-fleshed out characters. If she were Tom Clancy trying to create an action-packed exploration of strategic submarine movements during the Cold War, this sin would have been forgivable. However, in a character-driven novel, one that claims to focus on the inner feelings, motivations, thoughts, and desires of the people, the failure to create believable characters ruins the effort.

One of the ways that Stockett makes caricature rather than believable people is through the oft-criticized use of dialect for some of the characters but not for others. Part of the reason to use dialect at all is to allow the reader to ‘hear’ the character speaking, to make the story feel more like the tradition of oral storytelling. This is commendable. And certainly, the use of dialect has been used in the past by other authors to various effect: Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison. These authors all either had intimate knowledge of the dialect they were writing in, or they took the time to make sure they were applying its usage correctly, consistently, and judiciously. None of these terms can be applied to Ms. Stockett’s usage of dialect in the speech of the black maids. She tried to represent not only grammatical features of the dialect but the phonetic features as well. As a result, the words “going to” (for future tense) are sometimes rendered as “gone” and sometimes as “on.” She used the two interchangeably for no apparent reason. She also used “a” to represent, alternatively “to” or “of” or “have.” The inconsistency was distracting at best and confusing much of the time. It seemed almost random, which makes me wonder how much attention she was paying to how she was writing, and how much she knew about the dialect to begin with.

Of course the issue has been brought up that this dialect treatment was used only for the black characters and not for the white characters. While it is undoubtedly true that there were speech differences between the communities, this explanation begs the question of why we cannot ‘hear’ the white characters. The grammar may be more that of standard English, but what about the Southern accent? Why weren’t there some “goin” instead of “going”? Or “wanna” instead of “want to”? If you are trying to write grammatically, you would need to write the words out. But you can speak grammatically and still use the phonetic process of liason, or “mushing” sounds. English speakers do this all the time in speaking. Certainly, the white people of Jackson, Mississippi spoke with a drawl. Why was there no attempt to portray that accent as well?

This starts to take credibility away from the characters, but it doesn’t stop there. The characters – both white and black – are easily identifiable stereotypes: the ‘sassy’ maid (Minny), the loyal, strong and silent maid (Aibileen), the one-dimensional hateful white villain (Hilly), the sympathetic white hero (Skeeter). The only character that even begins to have any kind of complexity is Miss Celia, who can still be distilled into the naïve white girl who starts off wanting to be part of the popular crowd but ends up hating them and siding with the hero. These characters ring false because they are ancillary to the story the author wanted to tell. She had the story all set and just created what amounts to stereotypes because you can’t tell the story without people. So the characters end up with glaring inconsistencies and contradictions – and thus less credibility – because they are only there for the sake of the story.

For example, there was Hilly’s maid, Yule May, who was a college-educated maid working endlessly to send one of her sons to college. She and her husband couldn’t afford to send both sons, but they were determined to send one son. They did hard, honest work for years and the oldest son was close to going to college and they were close to having the money to send him. She didn’t speak the same way the other maids did and she was portrayed as well-respected and dignified in the black community. Then, out of nowhere, it turns out that she stole a ring from Hilly and was arrested. Hilly pretended the ring was worth more than it was and made sure that Yule May was sentenced to prison for four years. This is conveniently all around the time when Skeeter finally – finally! – starts to see that Hilly is a Mean Girl.

This incident is necessary to show how bad Hilly was and to clarify the contrast between the bad employers and the good employers. The need to push the plot forward took precedence over the need to maintain consistency in Yule May’s character. It was like the author knew what she wanted to happen but rather than ask “Would my character do that?” she asked “How can I make sure this happens?” so she wrote it in, regardless of whether or not it was in keeping with the character. It seems totally insistent to have a character who worked so hard for so long, and who valued honesty and dignity,  suddenly decide – not in the heat of the moment or out of revenge or anger – to just steal a ring to pay for the last fraction of tuition. There was no incident that she was reacting to, no extra motive to make her a angry enough to suspend good judgment, no unexpected dire straits to make them need the money sooner than expected. She just did it. Why? So Stockett could have her plot the way she wanted it.

There were more examples of this, when characters were made to do something or say something or act a certain way just to propel the story. This is not to say that writers don’t need plot devices to drive the story. Of course they do. The plot needs to move forward. But when an author is relying solely on characters to do so, it eventually becomes too transparent, the characters lose credibility, and ultimately, the plot itself suffers.

This brings me back to the idea of good idea, bad execution. I recognize that the story she was trying to convey was a good one: the relationship between black and white women was a complicated one and probably still is, and it is one worth examining. That message, however, got over-simplified to the point of being trite because there was no subtlety, no nuance in the characters or the events. So we end up with the almost insultingly simple message of “Some white women were mean to their black maids, who then hated their white employers. But some women were really nice and so their black maids were loyal to them.” I mean, if this is a revelation to people, that’s one hell of a bubble they were living in! The idea itself is nothing new. What would have been interesting would have been a much more personal exploration of the ways in which these relationships are in fact, more complicated than they seem. If she had written only from Skeeter’s point of view, as a white woman struggling to come to terms with these complex dynamics, then I would have thought better of the book. I feel like Stockett thinks she’s already got the answers from everyone’s point of view, so why bother actually talking to anyone else or doing research? She’s already got it all figured out. And it’s just fiction, right? She can hide behind that excuse to absolve herself of any responsibility.

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