Beauty and Tragedy in Southern Culture: Kathryn Stockett’s The Help

The Help
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I lived in North Carolina for six years. Upon her return from a church trip to Mississippi, one of my black coworkers—who had been born and raised in North Carolina and was a child during segregation—reported that she never wanted to return to Mississippi. She felt out of place and like her group were treated with hostility there, even in the late 1990’s.

I find the history of the South to be intriguing and tragic in so many ways, but so many times people are dismissive in their treatment of the South or they only show one side of an incredibly complex culture. In The Help, Stockett’s mixed feelings about her home state are clear, and this lends a dimension that is so often missing from discussions of and writings about the South. Stockett’s done an elegant job of juxtaposing the hatred and the love, the beauty and the ugliness that coexist in the South. I appreciate that she didn’t leave the characters as two-dimensional names on the page. She let them live and breathe.

The book got me thinking about the danger that people were in during the 1960’s in Mississippi, even when they weren’t trying to make any changes in the culture. It led me to wonder just how much I would be willing to risk to try to make a positive change (and to fear, as I always do, that I wouldn’t have the courage to do what was right if I were in that kind of situation). It showed how it’s possible to make a change without jumping right into it, but rather to kind of tiptoe in until you’re too deep to turn back and you just need to keep swimming and hope you reach the other side. I get the impression that’s how a lot of activists got (and get) started. They just start speaking truth and before they know it, they’re in the thick of it. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali comes to mind, as does Tim DeChristopher.)

There were some elements of her book that show that it was clearly a first novel. There is some clumsiness as she tries to show the passage of time, and I found myself needing to read back to figure out just how much time had passed. I think there were some inconsistencies in Mae Mobley’s age (at one point she was in preschool, then she was in first grade, even though I don’t think that much time had passed). Towards the beginning of the second half of the book, it seemed like Stockett might have hit a point of struggle in her own writing process. I could feel her sort of spinning her wheels and trying to write through it and follow where her story was leading. This is, I think, often necessary in the writing process, but I’d rather it be less noticeable in a finished novel.

The copy I read had the “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE” cover on it, and in spite of myself, I found it difficult to stop looking at the pretty people in the cover photo and distracting myself by thinking that the Hollywood versions of the characters don’t match very well the characters as Stockett’s written them. I don’t know why the movies and the books on which they’re based can’t stand alone. I understand why they do it, but it’s still annoying to me. You don’t see people handing out excerpts of the book at the movie theater.

Still, this was a book that I found myself wanting to keep reading and reading until I reached the end. Luckily, my husband took the kids to the zoo this afternoon so I could do just that without staying up late to finish it.

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5 comments

  1. Pingback: 2011: My Year in Books « Imperfect Happiness
  2. Pingback: Gone Reading | Ramblings of a Misguided Blonde
  3. Stacy · September 18, 2011

    I just recently finished this one as well, and really liked it. It was fascinating to me to get a glimpse of a culture and life that is so foreign to my white, middle-class, rather privileged lifestyle.

    And the only copy of the book I could find had the movie characters on it as well, and I don’t like that either!

    Like

  4. Melanie Meadors · September 18, 2011

    You bring up an interesting point about the activists. Once you think about it, even Gandhi got his start slowly. I’ve noticed this about myself, too. I started being a little concerned about food and where it comes from, the conditions under which it was grown…and very slowly, I find myself faced with decisions, and situations where I can say things to people involved on both sides. Who know where it will end up.

    Complex is the perfect word to describe the social structure of Mississippi. There is a very high African American population. We’ve stopped there to eat and have been the only white people in a restaurant. Yet the whole situation is broken, because some of the original problems still exist (white supremacy, etc), there is animosity on both sides toward each other, and even though there is such a high population of African Americans, they are not getting the representation they should be.

    Thanks for the review–I’ve been thinking about picking this book up.

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    • CJ · September 18, 2011

      Thanks for the comment! My book reviews are not my most popular posts, and I sometimes wonder if I should just leave them on Goodreads and not post them here. It’s nice when I get to have feedback and discussion about books in the blog, though.

      What struck us was the strong Black middle class in the South. This is something we noticed more once we left and noticed its absence than when we lived in North Carolina. Other places we’ve lived (California, the Midwest, Utah) have been quite segregated by race and the Black and Latino populations are largely in more “poor” parts of town. North Carolina was, perhaps ironically, the most integrated place we’ve lived. Oakland, California, was more integrated, but where we lived in Silicon Valley it really wasn’t. I don’t really understand why this is, but it’s what we’ve observed.

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