I tend to avoid the blockbuster bestsellers. But my mother’s friend gave her The Help, and she passed it on to me. I wasn’t very interested, although the movie trailers looked better than I’d expected. But I was in desperate need of something distracting one night, something other than what I’d been reading or, it seemed, anything else within reach, and The Help was right there, and next thing I knew it was 2:30 AM and it was only through sheer willpower that I put this down and tried to go to sleep. Tried. It wasn’t easy. I read this book in three sittings, and it would have been one if I’d had any say in the matter. That hasn’t happened in a while.
An indication of how thoroughly distracted I was: I loathe, despise, and abominate the present tense in fiction. It’s silly to admit it, but I was halfway through the book before it really registered that all three points of view in The Help are present tense. I grew used to it in Aibileen’s section – it was just a part of the dialect, of Aibileen’s voice; the same was true of Minny’s, and by the time I started Skeeter’s first chapter I was well beyond simply engrossed. I literally did a double-take when for some reason one present-tense usage registered. It was simply that I was paying far more attention to what was happening than to how it was written – and it’s been a very long time since that happened, that thoroughly.
It should not have been so very compulsively readable. Present tense; dialect to one degree or another throughout; but the three women whose voices tell the story are so vibrant and alive that Kathryn Stockett might have been able to get away with future tense Pig Latin and still produced gold. (I wouldn’t recommend it, however.) Aibileen and Minny and Skeeter are each in her way wounded, and are not about to be sharing everything right off with someone they know as little as the reader. It takes time to gain their friendship and their confidence, and in the meantime the secrets they keep are only hinted at, to torment and tease. When the secrets are finally revealed, in their own time, they are equal to their buildup. Again, not something easily pulled off.
Each section is written just as if the narrator were talking to the reader, truly in her voice. Each woman’s voice belongs to her and her alone. Aibileen’s dialect is heavy, warm but mildly ironic, bitterness and sorrow always just below the surface – or higher. I adore Aibileen. Minny’s mother was a schoolteacher and had no patience for slang, and Minny has never quite lapsed from her high standards; neither of these women is stupid, not by a long mark, but Minny’s voice has a closer relationship to formal grammar – along with a bigger helping of sarcasm and bitterness. Skeeter is a college girl, and her voice, always worried, is closest to standard – but she is still a Mississippi girl and still calls the Harper & Row editor Missus Stein. One test of good fiction writing is whether a character’s dialogue can be matched to that character based on style and syntax alone. Any single paragraph in this book can pass that test.
I feel a little stupid that some of the dangers of the time and place never occurred to me. The 60’s aren’t my milieu. I happily missed nearly all the decade, and the only thing I’ve regretted was the moon launch (and maybe the Beatles). Plus I’m a Northern girl; even at the worst of it, before I was born, it wasn’t quite as bad here. (Partly because, I find, segregation was more due to strictly separated neighborhoods (or rather neighborhoods and ghettos) than law.) I knew some of it, of course. I knew the basics of the story of Emmet Till (though I didn’t realize he was only 14; or maybe it was another case I had heard of. There were no doubt many). But I simply was clueless about how prevalent and constant the danger was. Every day, every action, every word and look and conversation and quirk of an eyebrow might be scrutinized, and might lead to … anything. Being fired; being beaten; being killed. Crosses burned, houses burned, bodies burned. And even beyond the danger, almost as hard to live with had to be the constant, continuous barrage of words. Even someone otherwise not unfriendly thought nothing of what is now (happily almost universally) considered outrageous remarks. Complete strangers were free to say appalling things.
I know – I’ve been sheltered, that this was such a revelation to me. Don’t think I’m not, in a large way, grateful.
If I had been forced to say what I expected from The Help it would probably have been social commentary. Heart-warming. Heartstring-tugging. Some facile tale of some white girl’s exposé on racial inequality. I was shocked, actually shocked, at the level of anxiety in this novel – it was more intense than a great many books intended as suspense novels. There was the not-quite comic suspense of what exactly the deal was with the pie. But, more, much more, there was the concern, the need to know if these women were going to be all right. There was no guarantee of that, none. Someone’s review of another book nailed it:
“Yes, somehow [the author] made even those aspects of the novel incredibly interesting though it’s a subject in which I have very little interest. I sympathised very much with [the main characters]’s terrors and her courage at facing them – in fact I found I couldn’t stop worrying about her even when I wasn’t reading the book.”
I cared about these people. (Not characters: people.) I worried about them – yes, even when I wasn’t reading the book. I learned from this, factually and emotionally. I was deeply impressed – this was a beautiful, beautiful book.