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.