The Vengeful Polyglot

“The Help”

Posted on: June 21, 2011

This is yet another book I picked up because I felt I thought the movie sounded interesting and I just can’t see the movie before I read the book (that is just not how my mother raised me). Set in Jackson Mississippi in 1962, the story switches between three PoVs: Skeeter, a young white woman who aims to write a tell-all book about the stories of how black maids are treated by their white employers, and the two maids who first risk their livelihoods and personal safety in helping her out, Aibileen and Minny. I won’t waste anyone’s time on summary — either you’ve seen the movie trailer or looked at the back cover, or you can just as well on Amazon.

The writing is well done, in general. The plot is well-structured, and the author captures the tension between the races, especially at the climax, quite well. It’s also a quick read, even though the book looks fairly meaty — I started it yesterday and finished it today. The first thing you notice is that while the two maids’s characters are excellently fleshed out and their voices are distinct and lovely, their sections are written in an obvious dialect. I’m someone who is easily off-put by accents in books unless it’s done unusually well. I find it to be a distraction. This, unfortunately, wasn’t entirely an exception.

After a while, you become used to it, but occasionally something would stop me for a moment and I’d have to puzzle out what she was trying to convey. I’m not able to say if it’s particularly authentic to the time period and whatnot, but I can say I think I would have preferred less of it. If it had only occurred in dialogue, maybe I would have preferred it. On the other hand, it does add character, and I did get used to it. It wasn’t so annoying as to make me give up on the book, more importantly.


I also appreciated that it wasn’t entirely black and white (no pun intended). Not all white people were evil, not all black people good. The villains and heroes were multidimensional, to the point where it would be hard to characterize them simply in those terms. People did occasionally defy stereotypes instead of supporting them. Even Miss Hilly, the primary antagonist, isn’t entirely terrible all the time, at least at the beginning of the book. The ending is also atypical, though I think I need to sleep on it to see if I really care for it or not. I’m on the fence at the moment.

I think my bottom line is that it’s worth reading, but not as relevatory as, say, To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m sure that was the intent, but I don’t think it’s quite reached the level of import its cover claims. Well-written, well-crafted, but not the best book on race relations ever. It didn’t make me cry the way Mockingbird did, and Stockett is no Harper Lee. It won’t change your life. Then again, I don’t think that’s where the bar should be… that’s just where it’s been set, based on the reviews included in the packaging. I enjoyed the voice, though maybe not the diction, and I enjoyed the plot. I’d recommend it, but I think it’s much more a ladies book club selection than something to be memorialized as one of the most influential books of all time. I wish it hadn’t been billed so highly, because the standard to which it’s being compared so blithely just isn’t realistic. Perhaps the reason it is so highly lauded is because it really doesn’t stray too far into the void — it’s just not that controversial. It shows racism, sure, but the most egregious actions are only mentioned, if that, not focused on. Maybe that’s why it’s become so popular. I’d hate to call it Mockingbird Lite, as that sounds belittling and I really did like it, but it’s just not bleak enough to be truly unsettling the way Mockingbird is. This isn’t the “wrong” choice, I just think that it probably shies away from some of the bleakness which really raised other books on similar subjects to that next level of brilliance and horror. The consequences in the book for leaving the status quo are… bad, but anything worse than firing or lying is really glossed over as something to happens to auxiliary characters. It doesn’t touch the people the reader cares most about in a meaningful way, and most of it that does is off-screen or implied. This removes some of the impact, understandably, but also makes the book more “comfortable” to read. It’s a trade-off. That’s part of the reason I just can’t agree with the hype, though. You just can’t be like Mockingbird without making people really unsettled.

I do think it will convert to a movie quite well, though, so long as it’s not forgotten that the story is mainly about the maids, and not the white young lady (and that she’s not supposed to be a romantic beauty, either, which Hollywood loves). It’s good, really quite good, just not the best.


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Blog by a programmer cum linguist cum writer cum total geek. One who pretentiously uses "cum" in place of any other logical connectives. Direct questions to the Ask Lauren page!

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