picture 7.pngSouth Florida Times Intern

The book The Help caused such a stir with its tale of a young White woman exploring the lives of black maids in her town that it is being made into a major feature film slated for 2011 release.

The  2009 novel was written by Kathryn Stockett, an upper class white woman from the South who was raised by black maids — and tells about an upper class white woman in the South raised by black maids. Whatever assumptions you may make about the novel from that information will likely be correct. But it is a good read, nonetheless, which could explain why it was selected to be made into a star-packed movie.

In the novel, “Skeeter,” an aspiring journalist, to be played by Superbad’s Emma Stone in the film, graduates from college and has no choice but to return to her hometown of Jackson, Miss., where she becomes curious about the experiences of “help” like those who raised her and decides to write about it.

Skeeter begins her research in a time when the country, and especially the South, is embroiled in battles over civil rights and none of her friends or well-to-do family want her getting friendly with black folk. But Skeeter is so much better than all the other white people around her, and she would never be racist or anything like that, so she is able to charm a magical Negress (the maid Aibileen, to be played by the Academy Award-winning Viola Davis), who opens up to her about her life and helps her write her book.

This genre of novel—young white Southerners rising above the racism around them to discover that black people are people, too – includes Secret Life of Bees and To Kill a Mockingbird, and can grow quite tiresome.

It’s all very self-congratulatory and it seems as if, at the end, we’re supposed to love these people for treating black folk civilly and having even a modicum of interest in their lives.

Well-intentioned white people may very well love The Help because they enjoy identifying with Skeeter and assuming that, in her place, they would be the nice ones too. It may be that, because this book comes across as a means to assuage white guilt, rather than paint a realistic picture of what the South was like, it comes off as a little naïve at times.

This is especially true in scenes such as the one where Skeeter is surprised to discover some maids harbor hostility for white people, even pretty and educated ones like her.  And, reading Stockett’s attempts to write in a supposed black dialect ( “yes’m”, “ain’t go no’” and “Imma”) was particularly painful and felt more than
a bit hollow.

Yet, I would recommend this book. The story-telling is fast-paced and I could not put it down. As Stockett unwinds the ups and downs of the closely kept secrets that Minnie, one of the maids in town, holds, she deftly reveals just enough to keep readers turning pages without giving it all away. Stockett’s attempts to find balance by telling the story from the point of view of maids Aibileen and Minnie fare quite well, often ringing true with sensitivity, despite her sometimes characterizing Minnie as a stereotypical sassy black woman.

The story’s twists and turns keep the reader hooked and at times I did in fact laugh out loud, as clichéd as that is.  I give this The Help one and half thumbs up.

Alison Thurston, a South Florida Times summer reporting intern, will enter her junior year at Princeton this fall. She may be reached at Alison.Thurston@Gmail.com