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The Help (Again)

I finally read The Help then watched the film. I am not going to talk about the film because the book, as usual, is better as a whole. Seeing the story transpired on motion picture aroused thoughts that previously had not occurred to me. Many people have criticized its lack of historical accuracy, distorting and trivializing experiences of black domestic workers. Others go as far as calling the book racist, patronizing the blacks. As per these accusations, I can understand their origin, but I don’t think the writer is liable to give us a complete history of black domestic workers in the south. What the book does, as befit in literature, is to show a social condition that had and still continues to define our society called America. Who dares to say racism doesn’t exist now? Not outwardly, not in the infuriating form of segregation laws, but in a more subtle, mendacious, and insidious manner.

In The Help, we see racial discrimination at work among the ladies in the Junior League club. The chairman of the organization is one Hilly Holbrook, who adopts an antebellum attitude towards race. She pushes this health initiative that requires every home t have a separate toilet for the help that every family has working for them, because the help, of African American descent, carries diseases to which whites are not immune. This Hilly also wields so much power that she can strike fear to anyone who dares to oppose her. She is, excuse my language, enough of a bitch for readers to wait eagerly for a house to fall on her. She is the nemesis—but she is also the society, for she inflicts injustice to the black maids. Out of fear for being disembodied from the local society, the women’s only choice is to comply with Hilly.

When Hilly’s friend decides on write about the black maids’ life, she urges to have all the maids fired. Behind this masterly constructed plot with women from both sides of the racial divide, The Help has awakened the subject from which we shudder. Racism is a snowball effect, a herd mentality. So blinded are these women who would support the cause to raise money for starving kids in Africa but treat their only maids as an alien race, despite the fact that they prepare the food, care for the children, and clean every part of every home. Why? Because a conscious act of independent humanity is what society can least afford. If they once let that in, there would be no end to it. Having accepted society’s discriminatory standard, and under the watch of Hilly, these ladies dare not to be friends with their maids, let alone being their allies.

The book is not racist, our society is.

[458] The Help – Kathryn Stockett

” [Aibileen] come home that morning, after I been fired, and stood outside my house with my new work shoes on. The shoes my mama paid a month’s worth a light bill for. I guess that’s when I understood what shame was and the color of it too. Shame isn’t black, like dirt, like I always thought it was. Shame be the color of a new white uniform your mother ironed night to pay for, white without a smudge or a speck of a work-dirt on it. ” (Ch.11, p.175-176)

The Help is about a young woman, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a budding activist, an aspiring writer in early 1960s who becomes interested in the plight of black maids that every family in the south has working for them. At the League meeting, headed by Hilly Holbrook, who has an antebellum attitude towards race and puts forward a health initiative that requires every home to have a separate toilet for the help, based on clear hygienic criteria, because “[the blacks] carry different kinds of diseases than [the whites] do.” (Ch.1, p.10) Given the social psyche, and that she strikes fear in those who dare to oppose her, it’s an invincible task for Skeeter to challenge Hilly’s discriminatory measure, which is rooted in the segregation laws.

White people been representing colored opinions since the beginning of time. (Ch.10, p.150)

She conceives an idea for a book, a tell-all, that exposes what it’s like for the black maids to tend white people. Her friends’ maids are her first targets for interviews. At first hesitant, fearing for their family’s safety, both the lovingly maternal Aibileen and scrappy Minny need some convincing and reassurance to collaborate in the project. Their example quickly becomes the strength of others who, knowing the law will never be on their side, thrive in silence. A dozen maids come forward to volunteer their stories.

I go quiet, thinking of Hilly’s bathroom plan and accusing the maid of stealing and her talk of diseases. The name comes out flat, bitter as a bed pecan. (Ch.9, p.143)

Meanwhile, Skeeter is plying Aibileen and her mother about Constantine, who was missed abruptly after twenty-nine years of service at the Phelans. As more maids come to tell their stories, Skeeter also learns the poignant truth about Constantine and her light-skinned daughter. The Help is a resonant portrait of the intertwined lives of women on the opposite sides of the racial divide. It shows how race sows bitter seeds in the dignity of women who feel they have no choices except to follow their mamas into the white women’s kitchens and laundries. Also exposed are ironies and hypocrisies that define this country, which evolves from shameful undercurrent of persistent racism.

I read through four of the twenty-five pages, mesmerized by how many laws exist to separate us. Negroes and whites are not allowed to share water fountains, movie houses, public restrooms, ballparks, phone booths, circus shows. … (Ch.13, p.203)

Despite some stylistic flaws (black maids paraphrasing their white ladies in perfect English while they ramble on in dialect; white women are completely free of the linguistic quirk rife among white southerners), The Help succeeds in what literature ought to achieve—appraising and exposing human condition. However exaggerated the story might be in spurts, it demonstrates the indomitable will of human beings to survive against all odds. Criticism against this book, in the regard that it distorts and trivializes experiences of black domestic workers is understand but irrelevant, because The Help is a work of fiction, not a history book. What fiction is free of a subjective perspective? After all, it is not the black maids who are done a disservice by this white writer, it’s the white folk. The book certainly touches some nerves and addresses issues we rather keep mum about. It’s poignant but not melodramatic, scathing but also funny. Other than infuriating racial issues, the book also paints lives of women and their struggles—in parenting, in trying to fit in, and in their troubled marriages.

522 pp. Berkeley Books Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Writing or Riveting

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What’s more important: Good writing? Or a good story?
(Of course, a book should have BOTH, but…)

I cannot stand bad writing regardless of how riveting the story is. But I can cut a literary fiction some slack. This might sound outrageously unfair to some of you, but The Help fits into the good story-mediocre writing category. It’s well enough written but it’s like a writing-by-numbers exercise. It hits all the literary cliches—it takes place in the south, uses “authentic” dialogue, talks about important (hairsplitting) issues (racism) but is safely ensconced in the past, so it doesn’t offend well-meaning people in the present. It is just so entirely cliched. I was intrigued by the story idea and I can see why people liked it: it’s a good, fast read, but the dialect is sometimes cringingly bad, and also not consistent. The book is screaming for editing.