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19 August 2011 @ 10:52 pm
The Help, Kathryn Stockett

I tore through this book in less than 24 hours. My decision to pick it up at all was influenced by seeing the trailer for the movie and, I admit, being pretty damn charmed by Emma Stone's character. The dialect/patois (possibly there's a more suitable word than either) in which Minny's and Aibileen's POVs were written is also really easy to slide into; it reminded me of Trainspotting. Whether or not it's authentic I obviously can't judge.

My issues with the book are two-fold. The first, which I'll discuss under spoiler tags, is the general lack of a satisfying denouement for the three main characters. The second is that this is a book written by a white woman about black women in the civil rights movement era.

The author is from Mississippi and had direct, if minor, experience of the situations explored in the book. I felt this fact did lend her more credibility. I just don't know if I personally can see through my own privilege to judge whether or not this book is excessively appropriative. I also feel that if this book had been written by a POC, there would not have been so much emphasis on how Skeeter, the white MC, thinks and feels about the whole situation, and how it impacts on her life - specifically, her romantic life. I'm white; if I'd lived back then I might have been white. I am interested in the story of how some white people got behind the civil rights movement and how easy it would be to simply ignore or actively work against it, and how each individual made that decision. I just ... I dunno. Is that the story that needs to be told? I don't think it is. At any point, even past the end, Skeeter could just walk away. No black person could.

In the end:

Skeeter's relationship with Stuart fizzles out after she tells him what she's doing with the maids. I just don't get the point of his existence in the book. He's sort of unthinkingly racist in a way I'm sure was pretty common back then - and now - but it's like Stockett can't decide if he's a good guy or a bad one. He starts off bad, seems to redeem himself, and then drifts into a shade of grey before disappearing entirely. The fact that both his exes turn into long-haired hippies seems a bit like lazy writing to me. In other ways he's such a Nice Guy - he respects Skeeter's refusal to have sex without any pressure whatsoever, he admires her dream of becoming a journalist instead of a housewife, he thinks she's gorgeous even though she's sure she's not. If he wasn't racist he'd be perfect; maybe that's the point.

Her mother also gets cancer - I don't think a book like this is allowed to escape having a character who gets cancer - but. She doesn't die, even though it looks like metastatic stomach cancer. She lives at least six months after her diagnosis and we don't hear from her again. Huh? I really don't see why she needed to develop cancer at all, except that it makes Skeeter's life genuinely tragic (as opposed to the 'tragedy' of her racist friends ostracising her at their country club, which Stockett seems to realise is not exactly going to resonate with a lot of readers).

Minny leaves her abusive husband. Awesome! Except that her main character arc is about her work difficulties due to her habit of speaking her mind, and that's wrapped up way too easily.

It's extremely handy that Aibileen gets Skeeter's old job literally minutes before Hilly fires her from her other one.

Hilly is an awkward sort of villain. You know she's on the wrong side because ... well, because she's ugly and fat and wears clothes that the POV characters don't like. Um, what? Like, her politics and actions are just plain wrong, but they are seriously conflated with the fact that she wears horrible outfits and her stomach is plump post-pregnancy. The main victory their book achieves is to give Hilly a bad cold sore. It's not that she loses, but she doesn't win either. I wanted to see her vanquished or redeemed, because this is fiction and you can do that, but in the end her storyline expired in a great big cloud of meh.

Aibileen's story about Martian Luther King makes me wonder if Stockett’s heard about the fantasy/sci-fi trope for making alien/elf/other races stand in for POC. It's a pretty clever deconstruction if so.

Because ain't that white people for you, wondering if they are happy enough.

Ha. White people problems.

She reminds me of a big, white, ugly school teacher. The kind that nobody wants to marry.

Sadly, while this book is careful and even successful about race, it kind of fails at internalised misogyny. (You could excuse this as being temporally consistent. I don't.)
Current Music: what goes around // beyonce
a work in progresswintersjuly on August 20th, 2011 11:39 am (UTC)
i was actually kind of on the fence about this, because isn't there enough stuff about How White People Feel About Racism? i wasn't sure if this movie was going to go in that territory where the oppressed are apparently here to teach everyone lessons in how not to oppress them (and really, the marginalised should not have to teach people how to be decent to them. people should be decent because it's the right thing to do).

i am glad that it skirts the line pretty well though (i got asked to see the movie and i wasn't sure about it)
every Starbucks should have a polar bearscoradh on August 30th, 2011 07:35 pm (UTC)
After reading responses to this online, I think my treatment of the book in review was actually far too gentle. This basically is a period piece about black women teaching white women Racism 101, and really made me question why Skeeter was in it at all.
Sereniaserenia on August 21st, 2011 11:32 am (UTC)
I do want to see that movie, so I'll not look at the spoilers! It's a bit more chick-flicky than I lean towards, but on the other hand, I saw it as a preview when I went to see Jane Eyre, so maybe I'm getting soggy in my old age...
every Starbucks should have a polar bearscoradh on August 30th, 2011 07:37 pm (UTC)
While the film looks far more fluffy than the topic deserves, suggesting that it's 'chick flick' material only perpetuates the cycle that icky women's stuff is only for women to keep them quiet while men get the proper stuff. It's not a chick flick, or chicklit. It's badly done historical fiction.
l.m.incandescent on August 22nd, 2011 02:21 am (UTC)
Just a drive by comment, but I love this review. Glad to know that I'm not missing much. :) On the subject of race, I read a book that sounds on the surface to be much better, though I'd be interested in your opinion. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is all about issues of race through the 20th century in America. It's nonfiction, but very personal and interesting. Or so I thought. :)
every Starbucks should have a polar bearscoradh on August 30th, 2011 07:38 pm (UTC)
Ha, one day I will read all the non-fiction that I really should. In the meantime, yeah, the race issue is actually poorly handled in this book (my basis for this being other reviews I read).
l.m.incandescent on August 31st, 2011 04:07 pm (UTC)
I kept this review in mind while I watched the movie, and I completely agree, especially about Skeeter's love interest. It was so strange to watch, as he barely had a presence at all. And the racial issues...I didn't quite know what to think of them. Hmm... Oh well.

Brilliant review, though. ♥
awrenceawrence on September 11th, 2011 07:49 am (UTC)
I can't believe I stumbled upon your review. This is a bit long-winded but here goes.. It was 10 pm here in Jackson, Mississippi and I couldn't find any new Snarry to read so I thought I would sneak back over to Drarryland, from whence I departed years and years ago, just to see what I could find. I've been reading backwards through HD worldcup stories, only stopping for the ones with high comment numbers (I know that's wrong) but I felt like I needed to be back in Snarryland by daybreak. Just finished reading DiY Messiah and absolutely adored it. I thought the way you wrote day to day in the Potter household was a fairly accurate glimpse of life with teens, tweens and slightly older married couples. I was surprised at some of the comments. (people can be so stupid. ok, that's probably uncalled for.) After enjoying this story so much I thought I would check your LJ page to see if you had a link to other HD's you might have written. And stumbled upon this.

I am a 50 year white woman (isn't that an opening line to a Steve Martin movie) who was raised here in Jackson. I, and my 3 older sisters, have chosen not to read or see The Help. We generally found the idea of one the Stockett's writing about racism or social elitism laughable. (you'll be glad to know I just deleted about three paragraphs of rambling re socio-economic dynamics here in my fair city.) It's probably wrong to be so judgmental without having actually read it but *shrugs*. So few people from the 'class' that she and her family were a part of ever did anything to affect change during that era. And still don't. This just all felt like one more time where somebody thought 'oh, look, isn't this quaint, someone in Mississippi really understands about racism and so must care about The Blacks and now we can all feel better about ourselves'. Anyway, I appreciated your review. And I really enjoyed your fic. :)