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The Help ~ Kathryn Stockett

July 29, 2009


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Genre: Adult Fiction

Publisher: Putnam Adult

451 pages

ISBN: 9780399155345

I am going to do something I never do. I am not going to summarize; I am simply going to give you the publisher’s blurb because I am only typing with one finger. Why? Oh, because I have a soapbox in the other hand.

Be prepared to meet three unforgettable women:

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women—mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends—view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don’t.

When I first started my blog, I vowed to review every book I read even if it was controversial. After all, what is the point of sharing if I don’t talk about the harder stuff or the books I don’t like? I have only run in to a handful of books that I would describe as truly bad and none I could actually deem unreviewable. I almost met my match, this week.

Part of me loved The Help and part of it made me very uncomfortable and nervous. Now, many books, films, lectures, discussions on race, gender and social class have the ability to make me uncomfortable and nervous but those are usually good things, catalysts that make me want to stand up and fight, hand in hand with my brothers and sisters in whatever it is that we’re talking about, wherever I am on the issue. Part of that rang true, here, but part of it made me cringe a little bit.

I am rocketing back and forth between two extremes, right now.

I would like to run to the nearest high peak and sing its praises. Wow, I’ll say, this is a fantastic look at what we were, how far we’ve come and it certainly does get right down to the nitty, gritty, ugly parts. My praise would also involve lashing out at people who call it a light, easy read because how on earth can someone look at the issues discussed (women staying in violent relationships, the horrific ghettoizing of our very own citizens during an era in which we were fighting against such ‘injustices’ abroad, the twisted, inbred dance of how codependent black and white communities were, almost directly reflecting the aforementioned abusive relationship) and say “this book didn’t effect me”. I would, most likely, accuse those readers of not understanding that those issues discussed are still in play, today, and to say that they are over done or not done well, is to say that there was not and is not still race or class conflict.

Well, alright. I won’t say that because there is an underlying itch in my head.  It’s an inevitable criticism, albeit, maybe an unfounded one, I’m not sure. While Stockett was alive and well in the time and place she wrote about, it still remains that she wrote for three voices where she has only one. You may kindly hold on to your tomatoes for a moment while I explain myself. Many have weighed in and raved about the authenticity of the voices of the black community. That’s fine. They are completely entitled to their praise. I suppose, to have any of the maids in question speak like people of color today would be naive, unfair and miss the point. It simply made me uncomfortable to have such character and emotion put in the mouth of downtrodden black women by an upper class white woman.

That said, I think, for what it is, I loved it. Stockett managed to capture both the idiocy and the idealism of a white woman, fresh out of college and society, who self-righteously embarks on a project that may ruin her reputation but also may literally destroy the lives of the people she is touching. I enjoyed it, mostly, because it was a different approach to the retold horrors of the post-Lincoln, pre-King south. That different twist was simply, the women. It’s a bit like Mississippi Burning meets Mean Girls. There is less lynching and more life-ruining libel, both of which, in the end, have the same effect.

I think, unfortunately, this is where many readers put their own subjective blinders on and unknowingly inflict harsher criticism than perhaps it deserves. It may be that there is a miniscule arc of brushed aside romance or that the novel, unfortunately falls into that shunned category of “woman writer/female protagonists” and is, therefore, regarded as less serious. One critic said that Tom Wolfe would have done a better job writing this. I think it was, after reading that comment that I started to question Stockett writing for the black women. I was so offended that someone might insinuate that a white man could write for any female voice better than she could, herself, that I started to reflect on Stockett writing for a different voice. Again, I’ve made a rather unstable peace with the issue of the voice, and I have no suggestion as to how a novel like this could have said what it needed to in a different way. It was just something that got under my skin while I was reading.

I think the story line also makes a lot of people uncomfortable because it appears that this is still, after so many tries, new information. If I read one more review about how mean and nasty the society women were or how things just could not have unfolded like that because times were not that desperate, I might scream.

I had no idea what I was getting in to when I picked up the book, as the jacket cover is a bit vague. I was a little bit blindsided, although, happily so. It is an intense read if you allow yourself to fully appreciate the time and place. It also brings the reader to a place where he or she must question how far we have really come. Unlike many of the noted fictional works on the subject, this is not just about the outrageous voices of the Klan or unleashing Germans Shepherds on students and marchers. This is about parlor room politics and subtle knives. These are things that laws could not and cannot change. It is up to the readers, writer and those in between to come down as hard on the same injustices still in play, today, both in the north and the south. The old concept of “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” does not and cannot apply to racism, then, now, or ever.

Buy this book from indiebound.org

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Kelly permalink
    July 29, 2009 11:02 am

    I like your review and I had to chuckle a bit at the “easy read” part b/c I remember telling you that this book was a bit of an easy read for me. It wasn’t the topic I was referring to though, it was more so the prose and perhaps b/c I am in a multi-racial relationship, these topics are all too familiar to me maybe and not quite as shocking? Maybe that’s why the characters seemed almost too one dimensional. I mean, we are still used to people calling our kids “half-breeds” among other lovely choice words at times. I did however really enjoy it. There we just little nuances that jumped out at me at times that would not let me suspend my enjoyment to the fullest. I love reading your blog Pam! Keep it up!

  2. July 29, 2009 11:46 am

    !!!!!
    Bravo. I haven’t read this book, but just reading the blurb has my warning bells going off. So we have a white woman who has just gotten her college degree, a black woman who is a maid (the Mammy stereotype), and a black woman who is large and “sassy,” (the essential black woman stereotype)–who start a “movement” together? Wow.

    Maybe these white authors could start checking their white privilege before they sit down to write? Just an idea.

  3. stacybuckeye permalink
    July 29, 2009 1:26 pm

    Wow! Your review is fantastic. I’ve read several other reviews, but still have not added it to my wish list. I’m actually considering it after you gave it such depth. Thanks 🙂

  4. July 29, 2009 1:33 pm

    Great review! I agree with Cass, the blurb is horrible!

  5. July 29, 2009 5:31 pm

    I left an award for you on my blog (http://infantbibliophile.blogspot.com).

  6. July 30, 2009 10:35 am

    I didn’t really know of this book before this review and, while I think these topics are important, I feel that I would probably be pretty outraged reading this book or give up on in part of the way through due to frustration. I’m surprised you didn’t throw it against the wall or chuck it out the window. You have more strength of character than I.

    That said, I think I’ll skip this one and keep my eyes open for other books with similar themes and topics that might not set off my temper.

  7. July 30, 2009 2:55 pm

    I loved this book and have been raving about it since well before the publication date. I agree that it’s disturbing that the issues presented are seemingly new for so many people and that it certainly shouldn’t be presented as a light, fluffy read.

    It initially unsettled me that Stockett gave voice to women whose experiences she can’t really know. Then I gave the book to my boss, who is a 50-something African-American woman who grew up in Mississippi and whose mother worked as a maid for various white women. And she loved it and said it resonated with her as an authentic and sharp look at race issues and women’s relationships with each other and a whole host of other complex problems in the 1960s South.

    Then we, together, recommended it to just about everyone we know, black, white, young, and old, and they’ve all raved about it. My book club discussed it in May and addressed several of the issues you’ve discussed here as well.

    I think it’s important that we’re talking about this, and that we as readers are giving thought to who authors are and how they give voice to people with all kinds of experiences outside their own. This book is supposed to make us uncomfortable and to inspire dialogue, and I’m glad to see it is succeeding.

    • iwriteinbooks permalink*
      July 30, 2009 3:10 pm

      Oh I agree and I think it will say and mean different things to different people. Certainly people speak for and write for people outside of themselves all the time. I’ve heard all opinions on both sides and am still torn. Thanks for weighing in!

  8. July 30, 2009 6:01 pm

    I read a portion of it at the beginning and felt the same way as you do. It’s very sticky water–certainly provokes uncomfortable feelings and controversy.

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