Anyone who claims the novel is dead has not encountered Kathryn Stockett. The traditional literary tools of plot and character, working skilfully in tandem, make The Help pleasurable to sink into as a warm bath. I'd been wondering why the experience of reading this book evoked a nostalgia for my childhood, until I recognized its similarities to the works of L.M. Montgomery, of Anne of Green Gables fame. While The Help is a novel for adults, tackling an ugly chapter in America's history, the pervasive atmosphere of the book -- its lovingly detailed descriptions of southern life in the sixties, the small-town gossip, and the gentleness of the author towards even her most noxious characters -- provides a lush escapism.
In the world of The Help nothing is what it seems, but there is a kind of innocence to its mysteries. There is just enough suspense to keep the pages turning, and tragedy is a muted presence throughout, yet ultimately this is a feel-good novel about the triumph of the better part of human nature. Evil is not only defeated, but is made to look ridiculous in the process.
There is a Hollywood feel to The Help in how cleanly and adorably all the plot threads are resolved. If the novel has a flaw, it is that in spite of the violence that occurs offstage, the plot avoids genuinely subversive or dark places. This is the book to lend to your mother, and grandmother, and everyone you know; no one will be offended or discomfited. This is the aspect of the novel that makes it sweet and comforting -- perfect for book clubs and a summer movie. (So why is that a flaw? Publishers would ask. Good point.)
The three characters at the center of the novel -- Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter -- possess distinctive voices and realistic internal struggles. They are also funny, each in their own way, with killing observations of the people around them. Each is at a different stage in life: Minny is tied to an abusive husband and too many children, Aibileen is considering how she wants to look back on her life, and the very young Skeeter is in the throes of discovering herself and romantic love. Stockett wisely does not make an angel or a saint of her characters, but delves into their thoughts and dreams as they navigate the oppressive complexities of their lives.
Stockett explores oppression on a variety of levels: the most obvious form of oppression is of people of color in the sixties, but she also explores the limited roles of women in that time. Skeeter, a white woman from a wealthy family, has every material thing she could want, yet feels compelled to defy societal expectations and seek a writing career. Her friend Miss Leefolt is discontent in her role of wife and mother, yet can imagine nothing else. And Celia Foote, a working class woman, endures social ostracism for daring to marry a man of the elite class.
The Help is most fascinating when it gives us intimate insights into an era and milieu, recounted in the vivid language of the characters. Aibileen's depiction of white women's revenge, delicately pulling societal strings to trap their victims, is a set piece of hypnotic narrative which culminates with:
It'll be a knock on the door, late at night. It won't be the white lady at the door. She don't do that kind a thing herself. But while the nightmare's happening, the burning or the cutting or the beating, you realize something you known all your life: the white lady don't ever forget.
And she ain't gone stop till you dead.
Odds are, readers of The Help won't stop turning the pages until it's done.
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