Friday, April 9, 2010

The Help: Race Relations in the 1960s

I was really surprised to like this book as much as I did. I wasn't a big fan of *Secret Life of Bees*, and in my mind I had lumped the two into the same genre due to their historical setting and general subject matter (race relations, 1960s). For me, *The Help* was far superior, even though I started off prepared to dislike it as soon as I started reading the first chapter, which is told in the voice of an African American maid named Aibileen. I struggle with white authors who write using colloquial African American voices, because I think it's almost impossible to get it right without getting it very, very wrong. I think Stockett did a great job with a precarious, yet important topic, and I appreciated her commentary in the Afterword describing her personal family experiences with "the help."

The novel is set in the early 1960s and explores the relationship between black household maids and their affluent white employers, told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of maids, employers, and the white woman who becomes compelled to tell the maids' stories. What I liked about the book was that the African American characters are so vividly and warmly developed, that not all of the white characters are bad, and that the story is fast-paced and compelling. What I didn't like so much was that Skeeter, the white character who writes the maids' stories, is portrayed a little too much like a white savior, assisting the poor and weak black characters. I'm sure a lot of people will reject this assessment and argue that the black characters are NOT weak- they're not, no, but they do rely on Skeeter to gain power over their white employers. Race is a complicated issue in this country, so there are no "safe", comfortable or easy ways to write about race relations. Kathryn Stockett comes fairly close, however, and since I enjoyed the story so much I am giving *The Help*
3 out of 4 Bananas!

1 comment:

Heidi M said...

Hi Mrs. Duell,
I really liked this book, too, and I found it to be a page-turner! I thought Skeeter's friends were at times a bit too villainous or two-dimensional, but I did end up caring about the characters. This book has been extremely popular at the public library where I work, with over 1,000 people on a waiting list to get a copy!