I hesitate to write about this book. On the one hand, I am amongst the last to read it, so how could I possibly have anything fresh and new to say about it. Secondly, the controversy stirred up by a white woman writing about the treatment of African-American maids in the 1960’s American South appears to be ferverent. But I am going to cautiously put my toe in the water, none-the-less.
First off, this is a good story. It may have no bearing on reality, but it is a good tale well told. At it’s simplest,that is what fiction is–it may go on to be something bigger than that, but it doesn’t have that obligation to be truly accurate. Some of the reviews I have read have focused on Ms. Stockett being white, that her white protagonist comes off best in the novel, that the maids have uneducated dialects. All true.
I was surprised by the notion that you couldn’t write about what you aren’t. I guess I feel that all is fair when writing fiction. It is not as if J.K. Rowling is a witch, entitling her to write about the wizarding world. The danger is that it won’t ring true, but I don’t think that happened here. I have heard dialogue very much like what Ms. Stockett portrays in the rural South of the 21st century. No reviewer I have read has mentioned that while there are clear disadvantages to writing from a viewpoint that you don’t live in, there might be an advantage as well–that what it lacks in the experience of being black in America might paradoxically be an aid in telling a story that the majority can listen to. That you know what parts people will find hard to hear and work to make them understandable.
Did the author get it wrong? I don’t think so, at least not in the big picture. She writes about privileged women whose social structure is very much like a high school girl cat fight. No surprises there. Their treatment of the help doesn’t sound much different than the portrayal upper class New Yorkers in “The Nanny Diaries”.
Are the risks of speaking up overstated? Again, I don’t think so. The violence of the civil rights movement and the animosity seen in the American South is well-documented in both the National Civil Rights Museum and the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum (housed in the places that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was born and died). Anyone who doesn’t think it was brave to even walk in a march for civil rights should walk in the monument ‘Racist Dogs’ in Kelly Ingram Park, north of the Baptist church where a KKK bomb killed four young African-American girls in Birmingham in 1963. Artist James Drake’s work depicts snarling police dogs made of scrap iron leaping inward from two walls on either side of the park’s narrow walkway. You can stand between and imagine the terror when civil rights marchers were assaulted with the canines and water cannons — which, by the way, are also in the park, and can be pivoted to point toward a sculpture of two marchers. I found it terrifying.
‘The Help’ takes a group of women that many of us do not know and humanizes them. We are sympathetic to even the angriest maid.