It’s 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a time when black women were trusted to raise white babies, but not use white bathrooms. Three women are about to blow the lid off the Jim Crow laws with an expose written by black maids who work for white women. Their book will be anonymous and identifying characteristics changed to protect them because this is dangerous work, this dirty laundry they’re airing to the world. The women could be ostracized, preyed upon or much, much worse.
The point of view in The Help switches back and forth between the three – one white woman of privilege (Skeeter), two black women maids (Minny and Aibileen). Each voice is distinct and layered. In fact the entire story is layered, like peeling back an onion. The characters are so dimensional you feel you could open the book to any page and know who is talking. And they are not cliches (save one character to whom we are supposed to pin all of our anger), something that could easily happen with such a novel set in the time and place it is. Speaking of which, I liked how Stockett doesn’t overtly comment on the injustice of it all. We know that. Libraries of books have been written about that. She’s interested in the complex buried affection and intimacy despite the color lines. Skeeter’s mother says, after revealing that she had run off Skeeter’s beloved maid Constantine, “They say it’s like true love, good help. You only get one in a lifetime.”
A lot of reviewers found it risky for Stockett to undertake this novel. Could she, a white woman, tell the story of these black maids’ lives effectively? Would she have the proper amount of empathy, the depth of insight into their world? Blogger Melissa McCurdy calls the book racist and says, “I want to read the African-American version of The Help.” Even the New York Times’ Janet Maslin writes, “The trouble on the pages of Skeeter’s book is nothing compared with the trouble Ms. Stockett’s real book risks getting into.” Huh? If that were true then you’d have to take Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird off the shelf, and while you’re at it, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Conner, too. Wally Lamb’s book, She’s Come Undone, is written from the point of view of a girl. Should he not have written it because he couldn’t truly know what it’s like to be female? Isn’t the point of fiction to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? And the ability to which the author is able to do that is what will determine his or her ultimate success.
Another point the reviewers take up is the dialect in The Help. I, too, am predisposed to dislike novels written in dialect. Unless you’re Mark Twain, just forget it, I used to tell people in workshops. It’s tough on the writer and the reader. The dialect has to be pitch perfect (if you spell lord “lawd” you have to spell it that way every single time) and it can be taxing for the reader if it’s too creative (reread the first pages of Huckleberry Finn and you’ll see what I mean). Also I usually find dialect a bit insulting and amateurish. The reason is because many writers simply insert dialect as a way to shorthand characterization and it’s always a Southern accent. (I can’t recall any novels written with a Brooklyn, Boston or French tone of voice.) Why? Is the author trying to imply the character is dense or slow? Either way, it generally fails. This would be my issue with The Help. Though not for the above reasons. Minny and Ailbileen’s sections are written in dialect while Skeeter’s sections are free of any of the quirks of language she certainly would have had, despite being college educated. Does this, to Melissa McCurdy’s point, make the book racist?
In the end, I think the novel rises above this flaw and is a page-turner. The Help isn’t a history lesson any more than, say, Forest Gump was. It’s one person’s take on these particular characters. It is graceful and real.