It was released way back in 2009, but it’s currently number one on both the trade paperback and e-book fiction New York Times bestseller lists. It’s been made into a hit movie with lots of Oscar talk, especially for lead actress Viola Davis. It’s a summer reading pick by Oprah Winfrey, and the release of the movie has made it a selection at book clubs across the country. A colleague at a conference in Chicago a couple of weeks ago waxed glowingly of the book and told me she plans to see the movie. A colleague at work told me there was no way she was going to see the movie. It’s hot. And it’s controversial.
It is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Is it another landmark book and film on the civil rights movement, or (as one writer put it) is it “just another example of Hollywood’s interest in black stories, but only if they are told from a white protagonist’s viewpoint?”
The Help is about three women in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi: two black maids and child caregivers (Aibileen and Minny), and a white college graduate who has returned to the south (Skeeter). Skeeter aspires to be a writer, and she has been told by a professor to write about what bothers her. What bothers Skeeter is the racism and hypocrisy in her community, and she convinces Aibileen and Minny to spill their stories about life as black maids in Jackson.
Since Aibileen and Minny are major players in the story, it’s not tokinism that is causing the controversy. Much of the controversy revolves around the fact Stockett is a white writer, which immediately provokes many readers to first question the authenticity of such a story. Is it honest? Is this just going to be another story of a liberal white person standing up for the rights of black people? What does she know about the experience of black maids during that era? (Stockett’s family was cared for by a black maid until she was 16, when the maid died.)
Similar questions were raised when Rilla Askew’s novel about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, Fire in Beulah, was published in 2001. But leaders in Tulsa’s black community were quick to see the honesty and authenticity of Askew’s work and her five years of research into the clouded event. More than anything, there was an appreciation that the truth about the slaughter of people and the destruction of America’s Black Wall Street was finally seeing the light of day.
Stockett is finding it harder to win positive reviews from many critics and readers, despite the book’s phenomenal success. She is criticized for the dialogue she writes for Aibileen and other black characters (“You a kind girl”). She is criticized for the dialogue she writes for the white characters (Where is the southern accent?).
She is accused of making Aibileen an Uncle Tom, a “good” minority, a person who absolves the white people around her. The archetypes of Uncle Tom and Mammy are invoked by the characters and setting of The Help. Those archetypes add to the criticism that The Help ignores real history about the state of Black America in the 60s.
I suspect it is mostly a good thing when a book is the subject of debate in America. If nothing else, maybe more people will read it to find out for themselves, or read the reviews and discussions going on surrounding the work to understand the cultural, historical and social issues that are being debated.
Just take a look at what people are reading, writing and watching on the web about The Help:
The Queen’s Castle: Excerpts from Jet magazine and other items on The Help.
NPR: The Help Draws Audiences, and Ire
CBS News: Katie Courie interviews Kathryn Stockett
Check out this article on NewsOK about women who have cleaned homes, past and present.
Okay, it’s your turn: Have you read The Help, or seen the movie, or both? What’s your reaction? Are you staying away from the book and movie for some reason? Tell me, tell me, please…