Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Help: Interesting read but white privilege?

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

I will not lie: I could not put this book down. I read most of it over a 3-day weekend at the beach, and my poor husband had to do most of the driving because I wanted to finish it. Whatever Stockett's weaknesses as a writer, she crafted a good story. Comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird, however, not only fall flat but are stunning.

Before I dove into this book, I was aware that some African-Americans were critical of it because it was written by a white woman. But I didn't read the criticisms in depth until I was finished: I wanted to decide for myself. After returning from the beach, I then spent a couple of hours on the internet reading reviews and arguments for or against the book.

The most damning criticism of the book is this: all of the African-American characters speak in a highly awkward and inauthentic dialect (unlike any I have ever read in African-American writing), whereas the white characters speak in something akin to the Queen's English. Hardly even any "yalls" or "ain'ts" riddle their language. Some white reviewers criticized the book because they found it hard to read the dialect: clearly they'd never read books such as Their Eyes Are Watching God. But why, in the deep south, would you have only the blacks speak in dialect? (The author acknowledges that if she had known how widely read the book would be, she would have been much more "careful" with the language she used.)

I must agree with some of the negative reviews that many of the characters are caricatures, as well. Although presumably told from the perspective of Skeeter (a white woman) and two African-American women (Abileen and Minny, both maids), Aibileen is mostly defined only through her relationship to the children she cares for and the son she lost. We find out very little about her upbringing or inner thoughts (unless they are about the white family she works for or her son). Minny is the most colorful character--a feisty, spirited woman who speaks her mind and gets herself into trouble because of it--yet is also an abused woman (this seemed incongruent to me). Then we have the southern white trash woman, good ole' southern boy, the vapid Junior Leaguers, and the villain, who is the most racist of all.

When I watched Katie Couric's interview with the author, I was struck by Stockett's naivete and lack of awareness about her own white privilege. She wrote this book as a kind of homage to her own family's maid, who died when she was 16. Although she did not dedicate the book to this woman, she mentioned her in the acknowledgements. Stockett did very little research before writing the book, and that shows. Clearly, the story is told from her imagination of what the African-American maids might have been thinking or might say, with little regard for whether it is realistic. (Stockett obviously has a great imagination, but she should have done some fact- and reality-checking for authenticity.) When Couric asked her about the dialect being so different for the whites and the blacks, Stockett responds that this is what she remembers from growing up in Mississippi. She appears to have been raised with very high standards in enunciation and speech, although she cannot rid herself of her twang.

Some black reviewers comment that white readers like this book because they want to reminisce reminisce about the "good old days" and believe that African-Americans who worked as domestic help had great fondness for their employers. I suspect that some of these people have not read the book. The whites in this book, except for speaking the Queen's English, do not come across positive in any way, with a few exceptions (and even those are flawed). However, the fact that so many reviewers take exception with the way the African-American characters are portrayed gives me pause. Furthermore, I wonder whether some of the things that happened in the plot could have really happened: most notably, the maids trusting this young, naive white woman (Skeeter) with not only their livelihoods, but their very lives? Why would they do that when they had so much to lose?

So in summary: great idea for a book, compelling plot, but awkward attempts to pull it off. I will be thinking about this book for days to come, and that's usually an excellent sign. As one reviewer noted, the best thing to come out of this book is the dialogue it has started. That's a good thing.

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