My wife and I recently returned from a vacation in Voyageurs National Park (VNP) in northern Minnesota. We rented a houseboat for a week and motored up and down the southern shore of Rainy Lake, one of four large lakes contained in VNP. If you’ve never houseboated, I can assure you it’s one of the most relaxing trips you’ll ever take. Our main goal was to do as little as possible each day and just enjoy the slow pace of life on a quiet, beautiful lake.
My personal goal was to sleep late every day and catch up on my reading. I managed to get through several magazines and four or five books. The best of the bunch was ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett. You’ve probably heard of it since it’s a bestseller and is being made into a movie, so I won’t bore you with another reader’s-eye-view of the story. What I’d like to do is review it from the standpoint of a writer. Specifically, what can we writers learn from studying the hows and whys of Stockett’s writing.
First, let’s look at her use of point-of-view (POV)—first-person, present tense. Times three. She alternates chapters from the POV of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, the three major characters and protagonists. A case can be made that Skeeter is the main character, since she’s the catalyst that ignites the story, but all three get more or less equal space in the book, and are equally important to the outcome of the story.
I’ve not tried much first-person POV in my writing, and never have tried present tense—mainly out of intimidation. It seems to be a more difficult way of writing, but Stockett did it so smoothly and (seemingly) effortlessly that I will not be afraid of present tense POV in future projects.
Second, she sets up the story, characters, and inciting incident beautifully. And so gradually, that you don’t realize you’re hooked on the book until you’ve read 100 pages and realize you haven’t put the book down in those several hours it took to read that far. Each character is introduced with two chapters of her own: Aibileen first, then Minny, then Skeeter.
In chapter one, Aibileen begins by telling us about the birth of a baby girl. Not exactly that magic first-page hook that agents and publishers seem to demand these days. But we read a few pages and come to learn that Aibileen, a black domestic servant in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, is the nanny of that white baby girl, along with the housekeeper for the parents, who seem rather indifferent to their child. We discover that Aibileen loves the baby more than the parents do, and we get deep into her world, her thoughts and feelings. The narration is a great lesson in using dialect, colloquialisms, syntax and speech patterns without resorting to dropped ‘g’s on ‘-ing’ verbs, using apostrophe’s and contractions to excess, or phonetically spelling words that aren’t pronounced as they read on paper. I got the feel for the way black domestics talked in 1962 Mississippi without having to read and reread passages to wade through the chicken-scratch that excessive phonetic spellings can generate. By the end of the first chapter, I was understanding Aibileen perfectly on the first read, and felt as if she was talking to me directly, with that heavy ‘black southern accent’ common in that time and place.
Minny, another black domestic servant of a wealthy white family, is introduced in the next two chapters. Once again, her speech patterns are similar to Aibileen’s, but the difference is so clear that I would have no trouble determining who was speaking if speaker attributes were missing. A lesson for us all that similar characters can and should be distinct, since no one talks or sounds exactly like anyone else. Minny’s character comes out strong, too. She is more emotional, outspoken, and opinionated than Aibileen. That’s one of Minny’s weaknesses, which results in a major turning point for her later in the book, and affects the other two protagonists as well.
Skeeter gets the next two chapters. She’s the white daughter of an upper-class Jackson family, recently graduated from college and an ugly duckling. She hasn’t succeeded in landing a husband, which is considered to be the only worthy goal of any white girl in respectable society. Skeeter wants more to life, mainly because she’s painfully aware that marriage may never be in her future. She aspires to become a writer, but has little opportunity in that era.
At first glance, it seems like Skeeter would be the enemy of Aibileen and Minny, but the reader empathizes with all three. A sign of good writing is when we connect with three unique characters equally.
Third, Stockett has succeeded in putting the reader smack dab in the middle of Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. I felt the stagnating heat and oppressive humidity. I smelled and tasted Minny’s renowned caramel cake. The scent of jasmine and azaleas floated in the heavy air. Crickets and frogs chirped through the still nights. I was “watching the book” as I read the book, the images were that vivid. The comparison that comes to mind is with Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Stockett is that good.
Most of all, I could see and feel the invisible line of segregation that existed between the races during that time. It was rarely spoken of directly, but the characters acted and reacted with each other within the strict confines of their ‘roles’ in society. Skeeter resisted (as much as she could) the urge to fraternize with Aibileen and Minny. Aibileen and Minny knew their place and roles in front of the whites for whom they worked and served. Whenever one of the three tested that invisible line, the tension level ratcheted up another notch. Stockett’s genius is that she never portrayed those moments with a heavy hand. Her understatement of relationships and tensions is a great lesson for us all in the art of saying more with less.
If you haven’t read “The Help” yet, I highly recommended it not only as a great read but as a valuable teaching tool on how to write outstanding prose. I plan on studying it quite a bit more. Coincidental to that, one of my favorite bloggers, Larry Brooks of storyfix.com, is deconstructing “The Help” as an example of his Six Core Competencies. Stockett has also constructed her story in the classic manner that Brooks advocates, and his analysis is spot on. Check it out.
My question this time is: What books have you read recently that are both a great read and instructive to aspiring writers?