I’ve had The Help sitting on my book shelf for years. I got it from one of my aunts one year for Christmas and unfortunately went right into school and never had a chance to read it. Well, on my way to New York City I realized that I was probably going to finish the book I had packed before my return flight, and would want a second book. I saw it, and threw it in my bag at the last moment. Lucky for me, because my flight ended up being cancelled and I was able to get over 100 pages in while waiting for the airport to figure things out.
What I enjoy about The Help is that it is written for the masses; it’s fun, dynamic, straightforward. But by the same token, it is masterfully woven together with interesting themes and experimentation of vocal register. In case you didn’t gather from that description, I love it.
Kathryn Stockett didn’t give anyone a free ride in this novel. Everyone in the book makes mistakes and makes poor decisions and is unfeeling at times (some, more times than others). However, she does a great job of showing why they choose to act that way. She validates their behavior, even if she doesn’t condone it. At moments it is tragic in its portrayal of race relations, but at others, it gives you a glimmer of hope that people can transcend what they’ve been taught. It doesn’t sugar coat the anger on the part of the oppressed, nor the closed-mindedness of the oppressors. But it does show them as flawed human beings trying to make things work within the context they were given.
The brilliance of Skeeter as the narrator continues to impress me, because she is what all white middle-class women hope we would be in that situation. Brave and compassionate and aware. And by allowing us into her head for a little while, we start to take on her persona. We want the stories. We want to understand, even if it’s painful. We need to recognize our white privilege, and sometimes the only people who can accurately tell us what we gain from the color of our skin, are those who don’t share it. We learn from Skeeter’s example, that we need to listen.
Stockett doesn’t come out with a treatise on how to improve race relations today. She makes us care. She models how we can be brave. And she teaches us to turn to the stories. Because stories are powerful ways to communicate experience and try to understand.