"Miss Moppet" wrote:I re-read TKAM before I read The Help. It was a set book for me at school and I loved it. Re-reading as an adult, I saw flaws but they were nearly all writing issues, not historical issues. Reading it and The Help together was very enlightening. For me, Harper Lee made all the right choices and Kathryn Stockett made all the wrong ones (although she references Mockingbird several times and at least one scene, the fundraising scene, is derivative of it). Lee represents the white characters as speaking in dialect, as well as the black ones, and she differentiates between the language Calpurnia uses at work and at home, which Stockett doesn't. The relationship between Calpurnia and the children is close but not sentimentalised - Scout wants Atticus to sack Calpurnia at one point. Her book is about coming of age. Stockett's book is about not coming of age - Skeeter finishes the book slightly less ignorant but just as self-centred and immature as when she starts it. Mockingbird is about childhood, The Help is childish. I thought it was like comparing an Old Master to the identical oil paintings of sunsets you see in stacks of 20 or 30 piled up on the pavement by a Piccadilly street stall.
Anyway, you might not agree, but either way I'd love to hear what you think when you're done.
I finished TKAM last night and really enjoyed it. I couldn't agree more with everything you said above, and I think those who are comparing The Help
to TKAM are missing the mark entirely; they are two completely different kinds of books. As I've said before, just because a book tackles race relations doesn't automatically make it a classic, and just because a book tackles race relations in the American South doesn't automatically make it another To Kill a Mockingbird.
When I wrote my review for The Help
I tried to articulate the various things I didn't like about it, but I was left with an overarching disappointment with the book that I couldn't pinpoint. But BB's simple analogy nailed it for me; The Help
is really just The Nanny Diaries
re-set in 1960s Mississippi. There is nothing wrong with TND -- I found it highly entertaining. But that's the thing -- The Help
wasn't thought provoking in the vein of TKAM, it was entertaining in the vein of TND. And while I don't mind reading about the bad parenting and other foibles of New York's super-rich in the 1990s, and the "plight" of their nannies, I just don't think that same theme works well when translated into the very real plight of Mississippi's black population in the 1960s. Their situation was far more serious than that, but Stockett doesn't bring it out in a serious way. Instead, she "dumbs it down" and makes it entertaining, which it most definitely wasn't. Although, to be fair, perhaps she wasn't trying to write another TKAM, perhaps that is just the label that infatuated readers have given her work.
As for TKAM, it is a thoughtful and poignant coming-of-age book, and Scout is an utterly endearing character. It is not a perfect book, there were parts of it I found to be improbable, and I can think of other coming-of-age books that are just as poignant and memorable -- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Separate Peace
and Summer of My German Soldier
come immediately to mind. But I think what has set TKAM apart and forever established it in the echelons of Great Classics is the time
at which it was written. So much in life comes down to timing. TKAM threw a spotlight on the plight of blacks in the American South while it was still happening.
Even if Stockett had wanted to write a book with the same impact of TKAM she never could because she is, quite simply, 50 years too late.
I would argue, though, that the primary message of TKAM is larger than just the plight of blacks. The story of Tom Robinson is book-ended by the story of Boo Radley who was equally disadvantaged but in a completely different way. I think another thing that has set TKAM apart from other great coming-of-age novels and made it so distinctive is that it can be boiled down to a single message that is articulated loudly and unmistakably; it is wrong to harm or otherwise take advantage of those in society who are weak and disadvantaged and who have done no harm to others. It is a sin to kill a mockingbird.
It's kind of amazing the number of awards and prizes Harper Lee has won for this one book, which is the only one she has ever published. She has even won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and at least one honorary degree. Personally, I think the book is good but it's not that
good! Again, it all comes down to timing; she just wrote the right book at the right time, similarly to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
a century or so earlier.
(I am now ducking to avoid all the tomatoes that are flying at me!)