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Tom Chaney No. 262: The Help

Of Writers and Their Books. Book Review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The next earlier Tom Chaney column, a book essay Possum Unlimited

By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney

Unseen Women

I have just finished a most disturbing novel. It is The Help by Kathryn Stockett [G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2009].

Stockett, who is a young, white, woman from Jackson, Mississippi, has written about black servants in white families in the early 1960's in Jackson.

The narrator in the novel is Miss Skeeter Phelan, a young, aspiring writer who decides to write about the black, female servants in the homes of her friends.

The novel's three voices are those of Skeeter; Aibileen; and Minny -- house servant to Miss Hilly, a college classmate of Miss Skeeter.

Hilly is villain enough for black and white Jackson alike. She campaigns to have Jackson ladies install extra toilets so delicate white derrieres are not placed where black butts have sat. Her Junior League ignores the poverty at home and raises money for "the Poor Starving Children of Africa."

So Skeeter elects to persuade these women to tell their stories.

Into those stories comes occasional news of the outside world. Medger Evers is shot in the same town. Rosa Parks rides, seated, in a bus nearby. And Aibileen helps her latest white charge to pretend a sit-in at Woolworth's.

Bob Dylan even breaks into Skeeter's world singing "The Times They Are A-Changing" filling the narrator with optimism.

I reckon she didn't listen to the whole album or she would have heard him sing "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." In that song
William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin'
for which he is severely punished.
And the judge
handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.
The novel is compelling - I liked it a lot - but it is also disturbing from several directions. Stockett's Ebonics doesn't ring true even to my numb, 72-year-old white ears, and the fact that she is gratified by favorable reaction to The Help, suggests that "I think they were surprised that someone finally wrote about it."

"Well," remarks Natalie Hopkinson, a black reviewer, "do you suppose she means they were surprised that someone white finely wrote about it?" And then Hopkinson proceeds to tell me and other ignorant white readers about the Blanche White series by black writer Barbara Neely who does, she opines, get the Ebonics right.

Stockett has bravely ventured into turbid waters coming out pretty well on the other side. Her idea of this novel is somewhat akin to one written by a gentile writer trying to get inside the mind of a holocaust victim.

We, as readers, are prepared to follow a novelist into the mind and world of a Roman emperor or any historical figure removed from us in culture and time. But I want to squinch about when I read of a white southern writer attempting to fathom the mind of contemporary black folks.

Before I call this novel a "Help"ful failure, I have got to read Barbara Neely and return to Walter Mosley. There is a movie of The Help coming -- maybe it is already released -- I'd like to see it.

The New York Times review of The Help began by reminding readers of Hattie McDaniel who won an Academy Award for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind: "Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one."

Her choices were limited.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2010-07-18 07:07:54
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