The Help: Better Than You Think

Fine, Kathryn Stockett. You caught me in your web of nostalgic 60s fiction and white guilt. I’ll admit it: I really liked The Help. What saves the book from actually feeling like an exercise in white folk patting themselves on the back for helping black folk is the way the novel focuses on the reciprocal relationships of the housewives and their domestic servants — the bad and the good.

The quick synopsis, if you were orbiting the earth for the last couple of years while this book and the subsequent film were burning up bestsellers lists and box offices, is a Mississippi native, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns to Jackson fresh from her four years at University with a diploma and without  an engagement ring. Where her two friends, Elizabeth and Hilly (the book’s cartoon villain), dropped out as soon as they got engaged, Skeeter misunderstood the point of higher education and stuck with it, much to her mother’s disgust.

Now Skeeter is hungry for a chance to prove herself as a real writer, and appeals to a New York publishing company (and its apathetic, Jewish female editor, Elaine Stein) to ask for a job. Instead, Stein tells Skeeter to get to work writing about something that truly interests her, and to grab the first writing job she can get her hands on. Skeeter winds up ghostwriting — irony of ironies — the housekeeping advice column “Ask Miss Myrna.” Knowing nothing about housekeeping, Skeeter turns to her friend’s maid for help. Instead, Skeeter discovers the topic that she can turn into her ticket to New York: she will write a book about life as a domestic from the point of view of nearly every maid in Jackson.

"Let's spark the Civil Rights movement... together."

The book is told primarily from Skeeter’s perspective at the start, however further on we get the (much more interesting) narratives of Aibileen (the maid helping her with the Miss Myrna column) and Minny (the badass maid who does not give a shit). Truthfully, though Skeeter is technically the lead, this feels more like Aibileen and Minny’s book, as their daily struggles to keep their respective households together is heartbreaking, hilarious and (shockingly) rarely corny.

In short, I cried like a baby. On a crying scale from 1 to 10 — 1 being a comedy and 10 being Pixar’s Up — I might go so far as to give it a 9. But to be fair, I was mostly reading this at midnight on very little sleep and a lot of caffeine.

Thanks, Pixar. I hope you're proud of yourself.

If I have one gripe, and it is a minor one, it’s that I cannot stand the amount of generational name-dropping that goes on in this book. When setting a book, TV show or a movie in the 60s, writers seem to feel obliged to put their protagonists at the forefront of the changing tide of culture — from politics to health issues, but especially to music. And antagonists must certainly resist this change. After all, we’re talking about The Most Important Decade Ever.

There's something happening here, and what it is ain't exactly obvious.

Even if people genuinely said it at the time — and I have no doubt they did — there is something undeniably corny about throwing in dialogue like, “Oh, smoking won’t kill you” or “There’s some scuffle in Vietnam — that’ll blow over!” or “Who’s this crazy Bob Dylan character — he can’t even sing!” One or two is fine, but especially near the end of the book, it seems like Skeeter does this about once every couple of pages. Surely a protagonist can still be a trustworthy person if they aren’t on the cutting edge of absolutely everything when it comes to the 1960s. Woody Allen’s brilliant Midnight in Paris explores the idea of the futility of nostalgia for a time you never experienced much better in its two-hour run time than I will in this review, so I’ll leave it there. But go see Midnight in Paris for more on this important issue. Also, Walk Hard.

Two of the novel’s worst offenders:

“A voice in a can tells me his name is Bob Dylan, but as the next song starts, the signal fades. I lean back in my seat, stare out at the dark windows of the store. I feel a rush of inexplicable relief. I feel like I’ve just heard something from the future.”

Revolution! Times changing! War! Civil Rights! Like a rolling stone! THE rolling stones!

“The commercial is over and we watch the news report. There is a skirmish in Vietnam. The reporter seems to think it’ll be solved without much fuss.”

Again, I’m sure it happened, but it just seems like such a cheap attempt to give the audience a smug sense of superiority — how our predecessors dismissed what would be one of the most devastating wars in American history, the rubes!

In any event, I really enjoyed it. It is 60s nostalgia and white guilt being wrapped up together and tied in a neat bow, but I swear to you — it’s actually good.

2 thoughts on “The Help: Better Than You Think

  1. Your reference to name dropping the culture bombs (ha) s amusing to me, probably because I can almost see how it happened. If an author wants to write about a setting or era that is unfamiliar to them personally, they do research. And in my opinion as a writer, that kind of research is overwhelming, and no matter how much book knowledge you acquire, you may find you lack the “little details” that make the story ring true. I don’t know much about the author of this novel, but I’m going to take a GUESS and say she probably was too young (or not even born) at the time of the civil rights movement to remember what it was like, so she tries to set the time and mood with superfluous details…

    • Oh, absolutely. And I can just picture her sitting there going, “Well, this chapter takes place in August of 1965, which is when…” and then imagining her characters talking about it. But the problem is that unless it’s specific to the story — and this kind of stuff never is — it just feels shoved in.

      While I don’t write fiction, I had so many English papers that were deluged with random crap because I just didn’t know what to do with all of my research. I sympathize, but still.

      I checked Wiki — she was born in 1969 in Jackson, Mississippi.

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