I avoided Kathryn Stockett's The Help for a while. I was afraid it was going to be exploitative, opportunistic, manipulative, a cheap bid for attention. In some ways it is those things, but not in the ways I expected. In the author's notes and on her website, Stockett goes out of her way to make us understand her motivations for writing this book: her childhood in segregated Jackson, Mississippi, and her complex relationship with her grandmother's African American maid.
Set in Jackson in the early 1960s, The Help is the story of two African American maids, Aibileen and Minnie, and the white women they work for. It's also the story of Skeeter, a young white woman who is stifled by the restricted life available to her in the deep south and who has ambitions to be a writer. To this end she sets out to write Aibileen's and Minnie's stories; this is a dangerous task for all three women to undertake in the same year and city in which Medgar Evers was assassinated.
The chapters narrated by Aibileen and Minnie are written in dialect. This was a risky choice for Stockett, a white author, but she pulls it off. Aibileen's quiet dignity and Minnie's rage are equally moving, and you get used to reading the dialect and can hear their voices in your head.
The book's problems have more to do with Stockett's portrayal of the white women. Skeeter's chapters reveal her heartbreaking naivete as she struggles to forge connections with Aibileen and Minnie. While we certainly want the best for Skeeter, it's hard to get too worked up about her problems, considering what Aibileen and Minnie deal with every day. And the book's villain, a young Junior Leaguer named Hilly, is almost cartoonishly evil, like a parody rather than a real flesh-and-blood character.
I thought The Help was pretty well done. It's not subtle, but I don't know how it could be. I give Stockett credit for trying, and if she seems to be overreaching a little, and aiming too much for the book-club crowd, well, that didn't make me enjoy the book any less. It just made me a little more self-conscious as I was reading it.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.