Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Help

At the instigation of my daughter, who loves the work of Junot Diaz, I have just finished reading THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett, published a year ago, but still hot with book clubs. Said daughter was puzzled about the best-selling story of three women, two black and one white, two maids and one mistress, in Mississippi in the early
1960's, and commented that while THE HELP was engrossing, at the end she felt something smelled. Expert intuition. This is chick lit of the worst kind--story sentimental slush, characters thin as paper dolls, writing style amateurish. The juxtaposition of the unfortunately written work and the simple, honest author afterword of Stockett, wherein she makes clear that yes, there were honest, humane relationships between white and black women even in a segregated south, is especially unhappy. That relationship exists to this day, not only in the south, but wherever women work together.
And who would argue with the book's concept that women can be remarkable agents for change? But this reader would hope that the execution is carried off with some semblance of reality. I was particularly interested in critiques from African-American women (the writer is white). Several grew up in the south (as I did) and their comments are uniformly negative. They comment on disdainful cliches, offensive caricatures and inaccurate use of dialect in The Help. While the jacket copy refers to "pitch-perfect" language, I can only counter that the Uncle-Tom's-Cabin version of simplistic villainy and nobility could only be the result of a mashup of tin ears.
Once upon a time, there were Faulkner, Welty and Flannery O'Connor, all of whom knew how to spin a tale of the south without insulting the reader's intelligence. Except for the author, I doubt if any of the people involved in the publication of The Help have ever been south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Minstrel-show dialect and antics do not a fine novel make. Barbara Phillips

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