Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is an entertaining read centering around three characters living in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960’s. Skeeter is an awkward, lanky, college graduate bordering on spinsterhood at the age of 23, and is white. Abileen and Minny are both black maids, having spent the majority of their lives raising white children while working in white households and trying to stay invisible.
The maids are really the secret keepers to the goings on in their employers’ households. And Stockett does a really good job of painting a poor picture of the white population of Jackson. This is mainly in the character of Miss Hilly – a bigoted young mother, uber supporter of segregation, and sorority sister of Skeeter. The woman is such a witch that you hear the famous music from the Wizard of Oz in your head whenever she appears in a scene.
It is a very interesting premise – the idea of telling a tale from the point of view of those who see all and hear all and say nothing. The story reveals itself in first person using the point of view of the three women. The maids speak in thick dated dialect (Law have mercy) and are really the most interesting. But the story depends upon Skeeter saving the day and I can’t help but wonder if it truly serves the story well – a white woman as the shining beacon of righteousness to the two black maids. It’s a sticky situation. Stockett lightly touches on it with one line from another maid, but any conflict the question might cause is trampled by Abileen. The story starts off being brave, but I think just isn’t brave enough.
Stockett builds her world with lovely narration and beautiful alliteration. It’s a bit jarring however, when more than halfway through the book to have the point of view change to third person in order to propel the story forward. This is an issue a lot of writers face creating works with the first person point of view (Stephanie Meyer and the Twilight books changing all of a sudden to somebody else’s point of view comes to mind). It lasts for one brief section, but it is enough to remove me from the story all together – and I’m not sure if I ever truly get back.
Since the novel has been optioned to film, it will be interested to see how the story is adapted. When dealing with characters that express such internal conflict and from such a personal place – coming from their own voice – it is extremely difficult to translate that intimate knowledge to a visual medium.
Time will tell.