After trying to purchase the audiobook and getting the book itself by mistake (a gift for my mother a year or so ago), I finally took it upon myself to read Kathryn Stockett’s book about an aspect of civil rights in the American South of the last mid-century, The Help. I was curious as to why so many people, most of whom I knew had feelings and politics on the correct side of the civil rights question, seemed lukewarm about the book. Why, hadn’t it been compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird by more than one of the reviewers? Wasn’t it a genuine effort to capture the voices and sentiments of the women who worked as maids and nannies for the southern white supremacists?
Well, the voices weren’t the problem, as it turned out. The voices, once one got over that rather ordinary reader’s annoyance with having to follow a dialect, a perplexing dilemma from Mark Twain on up, the voices, I say, were a delight. They seemed genuine, and insightful, and heartfelt. Once I hit my stride with following the dialect and spelling, it was far less troublesome than Mark Twain himself, and I got into the rhythm of it, eager to read more of what the women had to say.
But the truth is, since reading the book, I’ve realized that no, it isn’t like Harper Lee, who was writing more or less at the same time as some major civil rights changes were arduously making their way onto the scene. Harper Lee’s book was courageous, whereas unfortunately, as popular and right as The Help is, it’s got a much larger choir to preach to, and by that much is the more run-of-the-mill. As my brother put it, “It’s been done before, been done better, and I guess I have to say I’m just tired of seeing yet another privileged white slowly clue in to what’s at stake.” He wasn’t talking about Kathryn Stockett herself, the author, I don’t think, but about the character of “Miss Skeeter,” who helps the maids publish their book so that the world will know what actually goes on from their point of view in the houses of their white employers.
This is why I think that the book quite possibly is better as a movie, though I never thought I would say that about any book. I’m planning to see the movie to verify my impressions, but somehow I think that once the topic is as mainstream as this one is, a movie is the proper venue for it. This is a form that allows people to congregate in a public space and share what they (by this time) almost certainly all agree about, which is the uncontestable opinion that civil rights is an important and valid endeavor with which to engage and something that has a continued reality and force whose ever rights we’re talking about. And if there are some who don’t agree, in all likelihood they will be shamed into silence by the internal logic of the characters’ modest demands, though they may possibly continue to defy public opinion in private.
While I realize that this book has become the darling of book clubs all over the country, I would just ask this question about its literary quality: is there that sense that the author had to pay the penalty of serious insight in order to write it, or is it a little flimsy, a little thin? Though To Kill a Mockingbird is uplifting in the end, there is a sense of genuine penalty paid about it, a feeling of tragedy and at the same time a feeling of being borne aloft. Though the intentions of The Help may not have been exactly the same, what penalty is actually paid by Miss Skeeter for what she does? She goes to NYC and becomes a writer, at least that is what is predicted of her future. She escapes the consequences of at least some of her actions, and though her mother is dying, for some reason this is not played upon in the same way we can imagine Harper Lee using it. It’s instead a sort of “feel good” book. So, maybe this is a good book-to-movie script, but after all, let’s not exaggerate and compare it to something it cannot reach to. It’s a well-written, workmanlike bit of writing, which follows all the rules and touches most of the bases, but it’s not a great American novel. It’s enjoyable seeing the white supremacists–particularly a real bitch named “Miss Hilly”–get their comeuppance, but it’s important to remember that the challenges that were there when Harper Lee was writing are far less now than they were then, and by that much exactly is The Help the lesser novel.
It’s still worth reading, however, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the period and in the stories and feelings of the ordinary people who stood in the shadows of the great integrationists and civil rights leaders, for they too have their stories, real or imagined, and this is a capable imagining of some things we know from other documents to be true. I did enjoy the book, and we can all use some reinforcement of what we already believe to be true, as long as what we believe is on the fair side of things. But we should also find books that enable us to be challenged in the fair things we have difficulty believing at first, in the things which provoke our imagination to allow us to grow closer and closer to the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind. It is only then that we can award the highest accolades to a work of art and place it in the pantheon of great works.