Wednesday, January 6, 2010

THE HELP Could Use Some Help

I know I’m behind the curve in reading The Help. It’s been out for almost a year, and I’m only just now getting around to it because I got it for Christmas. I don’t normally read best sellers or Oprah’s picks. But I’d heard a lot about this one, so I approached it eagerly.

If you’re one of the half-dozen people who hasn’t read it yet, here’s a quickie explanation: The story takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. It is about the ‘colored’ domestic help who work for the white ladies. There are three main characters, two of whom are maids. The third is an unusually enlightened Caucasian young woman who wants to bring ‘their story’ to the world.

If you look around the blog-o-sphere, you will find many complaints about Kathryn Stockett, a white woman, writing in the supposed voice of the African American women. There are some who say the dialect she adopted for the two maid characters is demeaning, if not racist.

I disagree there. The dialect is not remotely as demeaning as Mark Twain’s in Huckleberry Finn and yet we continue to revere that book. Having lived in the South my entire life, I think I’m qualified to say she did a good job with the southern language. She should have. She grew up with it, too.

However, I do have a major complaint with Ms. Stockett’s work. My problem is with timing. It is late 1963. Skeeter is listening to the radio and hears Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A-Changing.” Not possible. That song was not recorded until 1964.

Later on, in January of ’64, she hears The Rolling Stones on the radio. Again, not possible. The Stones’ first album was released in April of 1964. In January of that year, The Beatles had not even been on The Ed Sullivan Show yet. We’d barely heard of them, let alone The Stones.

At another point in late ’63, Stuart, Skeeter’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, goes to San Francisco to face his issues with his ex-girlfriend. He finds her wearing a prairie dress and peace sign jewelry. Sorry, Ms. Stockett. Not in 1963. The Summer of Peace and Love was 1967. The Hippies to which you refer a few times were not even a blip on the socially conscious radar screen in ’63.

I could go on, but I’ll rest my case with those examples and assure you there are several more. In her acknowledgements, Ms. Stockett admits she tooks liberty with time and uses the Bob Dylan song as an example. My question is, Why? What point does she make by moving events around? Is the Dylan song central to the plot? No. Does the girlfriend need to be a Hippie? Of course not. These are tiny asides that don’t advance the plot or reveal character in any way. So why bother?

What she does accomplish is destroying her credibility for me. If she’s not right about these little things, what other truths has she bent to fit her story?

On her own website’s Q&A, the author responds to a question about her research of the times by saying she went to the library and read old phone books and newspapers.

Ten minutes with Google would have been a better choice.

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