Thursday, March 31, 2011

"The Help," by Kathryn Stockett

"The Help" author Kathryn Stockett employs clean lines in rendering the jagged ones impacting the lives of her characters.

This book is a mainstay on the bestseller lists and blessed with a nutshell profile that boils down to "black maids in old Mississippi and the women who employ them."

And the line between these two classes of women is established primarily by the colors of their skin, although in the end, it turns out be more jagged and broken than initially proposed.

Dominant employers on the surface, beneath it the southern belles typify a disappearing breed invariably affected by their reliance on the ladies from across the tracks to raise their children and smooth over their glaring imperfections.

And though at times the good girls in this story can seem too good and the bad ones excessively evil, Stockett treats us to shades of gray and cracks in the facades that allow lovely ambiguities to blossom.

The color line is not the only one rendered here. Class rises its ugly head in the form of a lesser-pedigreed country girl from Sugar Ditch who the powerful Miss Hilly and her minions reject for lack of polish and poise.

The grayest of the gray is embodied by Ms. Skeeter, whose failure to snare a man during her undergraduate turn at Ole Miss thrusts her into the netherworld of the working woman in a time and place where women didn't work much.

The slowly growing distance between she and her Ladies League friends provides space for a relationship between she and one of her friend's maids, Aibeleen, to develop.

The lines between these two women of markedly different experiences are the lines they scribble on the page. They are lines of truth in a story very much about the written word and its potential to propel social change.

Ms. Stockett's story is tightly wound with a strong narrative spine hardly interrupted by extended introspection or flights of poetic fancy - the aforementioned clean lines - so we must be wary of telling too much and spoiling the whole.

It's okay to say Aibeleen is only the first of the maids who decide to tell fledgling scribe Skeeter her story. And it's okay to reveal that this odd and dangerous literary adventure is launched in the searing crucible of the early '60s civil rights movement.

Banking on the slimmest of promises from a New York publishing editor, the white girl must mix with the black girls. Some of the more important ones have secrets we are informed of, but lack specific details about until the book's final stanzas.

Whether Skeeter's book gets published, whether the white ladies are abused or elevated by their maids, and if or how they respond will not be revealed here.

It is worth most readers' time to take the plunge and find the answers themselves.

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