Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What I’m Reading—The Help

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photo from bn.com. Affiliate link.

Like 40 bajillion other people in the world, I recently read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. It wasn’t until I was about halfway through that I took a look at some of the reviews and realize what a polarizing work the book actually is. With the arrival of the motion picture adaptation which, like most motion picture adaptations, emphasizes certain elements of the story over others, the backlash has become even more noticeable.

I liked the book. However, I didn’t read it. I listened to it. The audio book version of The Help is one of the best examples of the art of audio booking I’ve ever come across. And I think the awesomeness of the performances might have made it harder for me to see what was really being said through the course of the narrative. Hearing the voices of these characters made them seem like more than just words on a page. If the book had come into my brain it through my eyeballs instead of my ears, I think my experience of it would have been very different.

I liked the book. I recognize some of the more manipulative elements in the story, and yes, Skeeter Phelan’s role as catalyst made me uncomfortable. But hearing those voices performed as they were made me feel like the book was more about women helping women that about a white woman filtering the experiences of black women.

I don’t feel guilty about enjoying my experience of the book. Thanks to the narrators, I felt as if I were in the company of three wonderful, strong women for the days I was listening to the story. I also think that the engaging nature of the story, while in many ways undercutting the reality of the time, has made these issues and questions accessible to people who might otherwise never have thought about it. Now people are talking—about what life was really like them, about what life is like for domestics now. About what the book misses, avoids, or misrepresents in its efforts to tell that story.

So, yes, the book is flawed. Perhaps deeply so. But the conversation coming out of it is one that needs to happen and which might, in the long run, help lead to necessary awareness and changes in the world around us.