I feel like I may possibly be the last person on earth to read this book, and I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about it until the movie adaptation was released. So, if you’re like me and live under a rock, here’s the basic premise of this book: set in the 1960s, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has just returned to Jackson, Mississippi after graduating from college. Skeeter wants to be a journalist, and a New York publisher offers her some advice, which is to write about something that interests her, something that might not interest anyone else. From this she forms an idea: to write a book from the perspective of the black maids who work for white people in Jackson.
The main issue I have heard concerning this book (and movie) is the fact that a white woman is writing from the perspective of black women. I have seen a lot of people expressing the opinion that she couldn’t possibly know what it was like for black women during that period (true, but that’s why it’s listed under fiction) and also lamenting another story about white people playing savior to black people (see also: The Blind Side). There are two responses I have to this. The first is that if people only wrote about the things they knew, fiction would cease to be. Stockett really limits her story to Jackson, Mississippi, and even more specifically focuses on Skeeter, two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, and the people in these characters’ lives. The chapters alternate between the first person narratives of Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny, and unfolds the story of how this book comes to be and how it affects each of them. Stockett starts out well enough, creating distinct voices for each woman and introducing a palpable tension of both race and class distinctions. No one was painted as a saint, and each person showed potential, both for representing multiple points of view and for change and growth.
This brings me to my second response to the controversy surrounding this book, and a much more important point. My thought is that this sort of uproar should be saved for a book that really has something to say. This one, in the end, does not. All that potential shown at the beginning is virtually wasted. As the book progresses, none of the characters really evolve, and in the rare case that they do, it seems forced by the narrative rather than a true development. The “good” guys become almost saintly, and the “bad” guys grow increasingly one-dimensional in their villainy. Civil rights events of that time are superficially referenced but rarely re-visited, and ultimately Stockett pulls her punches. There are hints and threats of danger, but few repercussions accompany the release of the book. Not that I wish harm on the characters either, but not only is this outcome not realistic, it essentially renders the book moot. All the tension and fear of the consequences that accompany such a bold move never come to fruition, and everything turns out great for everyone, forever and ever amen.
Stockett mentions in her afterword that she wrote this book out of the love she felt for her own maid growing up, and while that’s nice and I can appreciate the sentiment, I feel that she missed an opportunity to tell a story that makes an impact. This isn’t a bad book at all (I’ve read far worse, and Stockett shows potential to be a competent storyteller), but ultimately it feels like normal “chick lit” fare and doesn’t break any molds. The book moves along quickly enough, and if you do like dramatic stories that wrap up fairly neatly, this book isn’t a terrible way to spend your time. If, however, you’re looking for a story about civil rights and want something with a bite, I’d look elsewhere.