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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Perspective on Kathryn Stockett's The Help

In reading articles and overhearing comments about the best seller The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and now also the movie, I find a variety of views.  Some see the book and movie as the best to come along while reviews and critiques often see the story as carrying on the stereotypical figures of Southern blacks and whites without distinction between fantasy and reality.  Some claim the book and movie portray a racist attitude by having the young white woman who collects the stories of the maids continue a practice of white heroes being catalysts for "rescuing" blacks from racist societies.  So how are we to read this story, or see the film?

I have read the book but not yet seen the movie.  Even so, I believe that one can see all these characters as stereotypes rather than as flesh and blood human beings.  There is truth in such a view.  Yet I would note that the stereotypes draw upon a certain degree of reality.  This was Jackson, Mississippi during the 60's.  I lived in a different Southern state during that time and earlier attended college in a more northern state of the South, yet some scenes in the book are familiar to me.  I know these characters.  I experienced circumstances very similar in nature.  And at that time I tended to accept such attitudes as normal even though I was critical of what I saw.  I even held fantasies of doing something heroic, not unlike Skeeter's act of telling the stories of the maids in her area.  I never had the gumption to carry out my ideas, although I learned many years later that some of my classmates made a mild attempt at protest of segregated buses by riding in the back of the bus from the college into town, doing so every Friday as a routine statement.  A few years later some students staged a sit-in at a nearby drugstore, only to spend a few days in the local jail for their actions.  And yes, again it was whites gaining notoriety in attempts to liberate blacks from Jim Crow.

For Stockett to develop the character of Skeeter and describe her efforts to do something similar to that on a larger scale is not an unreasonable depiction of that time, in an effort to banish legal and social racism.  It should not be seen as a picture of whites acting bravely while the subservient blacks dared not make public protests because of cowardice.  Many elements played a part in those days, many of them with economic consequences.  It was only later, during the Civil Rights movement in full public display was there opportunity for black protests in large numbers.  And even so, the white backlash could be brutal at times.

For the reading public, or for those who see the movie,  to expect more of Stockett's story than possible in the writing of her novel, is unfair.  This is a story.  It does indeed have social and political overtones.  But in the final analysis, this is a story.  The characters have been given some stereotypical traits, but don't ask more of a story than it can offer.  And I believe that all novels and movies these days have a certain life span, in the spotlight until the next sensation appears.  The Help need not be a sensation.  It has its own right to be simply a story well told.  Whether every human rights aspect is covered, whether every character needs fleshing out, is not necessarily the purpose of any novel.  I have read many many books with characters who would never be encountered in the public arena, because they are no more real than a spectre.  Yet the quality of the story-telling may be excellent.  No doubt Stockett's book will last on the best seller lists for awhile, the movie may be nominated for an Oscar, but there will come a time, inevitably, when it too will be gone with the wind.

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