Analyzing THE HELP

We’ve been tracking the amazing trajectory of the debut novel, The Help for over a year (including a giveaway of the audio back in February).

In the New York Times today, Motoko Rich writes about the book’s continuing word of mouth, which has kept it in the top five on the NYT Fiction list since August; quite a feat in normal times, but even more so in the midst of this particularly big-named-filled fall book season.

The novel, set in Mississippi in the early sixties, is about a young white writer who gains the trust of several black maids, most of whom work for her friends and family. She interviews them about their lives and how they feel about their white employers as material for a book. The young writer has to hide what she is doing, since this crossing of color lines would not be acceptable to her social circle, but the maids have even stronger reasons to keep what they are doing a secret, facing job loss an worse.

Several reviewers have been uncomfortable with the fact that the book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, who is white, portrays black women, using ’60’s southern dialect for their voices. In the NYT, Rich focuses whether this is ethical, quoting one blogger who calls Stockett a racist, while others feel she manages to walk the “racial tightrope”  (coincidentally, another recent word-of-mouth success, Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan, is also by a white woman, writing in the voices of Mississippi blacks).

Rich does not successfully address the question of what makes The Help resonate so strongly with readers. Last week, on the Huffington Post, Jesse Kornbluth offered some compelling reasons:

The Help is about Something
“That is, something real. Something that matters. Most of all, something that matters to women, who are, as it happens, America’s most dedicated readers.”

It Rings True
“The maids are long-suffering, delightful, spicy; they’re a dream team of strength, wisdom and compassion. The white women — and this is the novel’s big achievement — are small-minded and pitiable, but they’re never cartoon villains.”

No Sugarcoating, But No Horror
“Smartest of all, Stockett has downplayed the horror that was Mississippi in 1962…[she] doesn’t sugarcoat racism but keeps the guns and violence always a few miles away. Smart thinking. In popular fiction like this, riling readers with false accusations of stolen silverware works just as well.”

I have another element to add to that — Stockett’s portrayal of the developing relationship among the women as they work on their project. You feel them becoming fans of each other, supporting and encouraging each other as they grow in mutual respect.

Libraries have been adding copies as the book continues to grow in popularity, but most are still showing heavy holds. Unfortunately, as the NYT points out (and we reported in mid-Sept), the paperback is being held off until June 1.

The Help
Kathryn Stockett
Retail Price: $24.95
Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: Putnam Adult – (2009-02-10)
ISBN / EAN: 0399155341 / 9780399155345

Penguin Audio; ISBN: 9780143144182 $39.95
Downloadable from OverDrive in both eBook and audio

One Response to “Analyzing THE HELP”

  1. Robin Whitten Says:

    60’s Southern dialect issues are remedied in the audiobook version. The dialect is rendered perfectly by the amazing narrators. My Yankee eyes could never interpret the written dialect, but with the audio I hear it, as Stockett intended.