Thursday, September 15, 2011

"The Help" - book club observations

Our Invisible Friends Book Club has been reading The Help over the last few weeks. As per the rules of the club, here are my thoughts -

The Help: A Novel by Kathryn Stockett - Penguin - 2009

For the record, the waiting list at my local library was quite long, but my church library had a copy. As I say to the people who dislike the Harry Potter series, hey, at least people are reading something with plot and vocabulary words.

My apologies if I run on too long, but I have a lot to say... what else is new?

I fully expected Help to be a very readable story, told in a strong narrative voice, with attention paid to presenting the different points if view of each character. In this, I'd argue that Stockett succeeded in spades. It was very easy to follow the different points of view and understandings of a certain situation or relationship, and she did a great job at referring back to certain moments from time to time to let us see how they played out for different levels.

I also expected a few of the usual stereotypes to fall into play - I admit that I read a lot about this novel in People magazine and almost as much about the movie - with the clueless white woman, the nasty white woman, the tough African-American, the maid with a heart of gold, etc. I think Stockett did a good job at trying to make them multi-faceted, but the basic tropes still held.

That having been said, I think it's entirely possible to write novels that run the same tropes over and over again and do it well. To my mind, the romance novelist Victoria Holt did this brilliantly. One can use a formula over and over again with twists and keep it fresh.

My first problem with Help is that the formula didn't have twists. Stockett executed it well, but I anticipated every single one. Maybe this is due to my having read too much chick lit (I have another theory, but more on that in a second) but even if I hadn't read People I could have anticipated every piece of this plot from the get go. Now, is this a negative vote? Not necessarily - remember that Victoria Holt is predictable - but I did keep waiting for a surprise.

My second problem has less to do with Stockett than with the need that she is trying to address and some questions that I think she leaves unexplored.

1) Need - as a history teacher, I bang my head into my hands every day against the ignorance people have about American History. Stockett is making an admirable effort, with hindsight as 20-20, to shake people out of complacency about issues of race in the 50s and 60s - some of which endure. (Illegally employed nannies, anyone?) I think some (not all) Americans are finally able to look at the separate toilets issue as silly, but we're repeating it with headscarves today.

I've never lived in the south, but I have lived in apartments in Chicago that were designed with tiny bedrooms and attached bathrooms for the maid. Full bathrooms.

2)OK, speaking of history, here's where I think Stockett misses a truly amazing opportunity. She sets up the character of Minny as a well-intentioned but blunt woman who stays in an unhappy marriage because she has a man and that's status. She should have mentioned or referenced the findings of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report on The Negro Family and how the single parent (and grandparent) households' experiences and needs tied in with the events of the book. The Federal Government did a lot to encourage single mother households - unintentionally, but the legacy dates back to the Great depression. (If you want a bibliography, I can oblige.)

Yes, I am demanding more. If this is a novel with a history lesson to people who hated high school history class, more history needs to be presented. DPM's committee's observations should have been pushed further forward.

OK, really, I'm almost done.

This group is a lot of fun to me because we bring a huge array of reading backgrounds - we all love books, but we have different preferences. Though I have compared Help to Holt's novels, I have to throw in the caveat that I kept hoping that this would be an Agatha Christie style text. Where Holt throws twists, if you read a lot of Christie, you discover that she throws tornadoes. I was hoping for a storm, but it never came.

I would love to listen to a panel of Stockett and Sharyn McCrumb, - McCrumb writes mysteries with many of the same issues Stockett addresses, but with a more deft hand. McCrumb addresses alcoholism, race and bias very well. What I think the two have in common is that they both examine the pecking order that starts so young and lasts a lifetime. We may pretend that the popular kids and the bullies don't win, but they do hold immense sway, particularly in small communities. I do not say towns, I say communities. Even in 2011, the game of knowing to whom you must be polite, with whom you must flirt, with whom you must be docile, etc. is still very much with us, "late and soon" and I do think that Stockett nails this angle.

All in all, I'd call this a mixed bag. The plot is predictable, but the narrative is engaging. There are missed opportunities, but the mantra that one lives on in the love and example set for children is truly awesome.


Claudia said...

Very nicely done. Yes. You hit on some really good points. I never could get into McCrumb who I believe is "local". I don't remember which book I tried but I didn't get very far and I don't remember why. Have you ever read Lee Smith? She used to teach at Hollins. She might be in NC now but her books are wonderful.

Jeanne said...

She really does nail the who you must be polite and docile to, doesn't she? I didn't give her enough credit for that because the simplification ticked me off.

kittiesx3 said...

As I've posted on Fresh Hell's blog, this book most certainly brought back some things I'd forgotten about--like race riots, the help my mother had (briefly) and my stepmother had for years. Very odd to think that I was in any way a part of that culture but I guess I was.