Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Short Take: The Help, Kathryn Stockett

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s phenomenally successful 2009 début novel, is compelling regardless of one's reservations. The book is set in and around Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 and 1963. Stockett constructs the story around three protagonists: Skeeter, an upper-class young woman who aspires to become a writer; Aibileen, a gracious, thoughtful African-American maid; and Aibileen’s brash best friend Minnie, who also works as a maid and a cook. The tensions created by the burgeoning civil rights movement fill the air, and these three women are brought together by a clandestinely written book project about the experiences of African-American domestics in the 1960s South. Stockett has many hallmarks of a good storyteller. She has a sharp eye for incident and conflict, a knack for humor, and a strong feel for the narrative voices of her protagonists. She also does well by her supporting characters. The most memorable is the town queen bee, who’s a fine comic villain. The queen bee is both effective as a threat and as the butt of the book’s humor. One relishes every moment of her getting her just des(s)erts--including a grandly scatological comeuppance--and one can’t help but dread the consequences, too. While the book is ultimately just glib historical fiction, it occasionally flirts with profundity, particularly when it highlights how the various social hegemonies quietly reinforce themselves across all lines of race, class, and gender. The book's virtues are more than enough to forgive its numerous shortcomings. The most conspicuous of the latter is probably the conception of the Skeeter character, who is clearly the author’s self-congratulatory fantasy of herself in the story's setting. The novel also never quite transcends the stock-character quality of both Aibileen and Minnie. (Just think of the Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington characters in the film Glory.) But for all the book’s failings, Stockett keeps one turning the pages. That's the first--and hardest--demand for any novelist.

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