You’ve got to give Kathryn Stockett credit for understanding her own limitations and for the courage to go ahead anyhow. “I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi , especially in the 1960’s. I don’t think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could every truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity, “ she states in her afterword. That, she says, i
s the reason she wrote The Help, the story of a white girl, fresh out of Ole Miss, without visible prospects of employment or romance, who decides to interview and publish the stories of a number of black maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi.
It’s the beginning of the 1960‘s civil rights wars. As “Skeeter” works on her project, James Meredith storms the gates of Ole Miss, Medgar Evers is gunned down, and MLK delivers his dream speech. Certainly a yeasty project in a yeasty period. The racial politics and mores are byzantine, and Stockett has considerable creds to explore them, having herself been strongly influenced by a black maid who acted as her surrogate parent/mammy a century after the Civil War supposedly relegated all that to the Hollywood myth. The current events background serves to highlight the real threats to life, limb, and income these women risk by daring to speak their true thoughts and feelings even anonymously.
There’s plenty to complain about regarding The Help. The dialect is often inconsistent, sometimes so thick it borders on parody (especially in the opening pages), sometimes barely present at all. They aren’t overly clever, these conspirators, and the given circumstances make it only semi-believable that they could keep the whole project as secret as they do. The ending threatens to degenerate into one of those Hollywood situations where the oppressive adults suddenly realize that the subversive rock ‘n’ roll they’ve been trying censor is just innocent fun after all and so they join the kids dancing around in one big convivial romp. But it stops at the brink, and the conclusion is hopeful and believable and painful all at one time.
Though this isn’t a great book, it’s an entertaining one on a serious subject, and the characters are deeply interesting and involving. Despite my reservations, I confess to filling an insomniac night turning its pages and happy to have it in my lap. Stockett was presumptuous to even attempt this book, and I have no idea what real people like the characters she creates would say about its authenticity. However, this white boy would have to say that, authentic or not, it’s an honest try by an author who has some chops and writes with honesty and integrity and knows how to keep her story moving.