every Starbucks should have a polar bear (scoradh) wrote,
every Starbucks should have a polar bear

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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.)
Tags: book glomp 2011

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