In Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962, there are lines that are not crossed. With the civil rights movement exploding all around them, three women start a movement of their own, forever changing a town and the way women--black and white, mothers and daughters--view one another.
The Help is a feel-good fairy tale for white folks. The setting is Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, free, white, and 23, has graduated from Ole Miss University. She lives at home on her family’s cotton plantation but she doesn’t want to stay there. She wants to go to New York and become an author but first she needs to write a book.
Fortunately for Skeeter, Hilly Holbrook, a prominent and almost caricatured member of Jackson's white community, provides the topic. Hilly determines to get a law passed that will require white families to have outdoor bathrooms built for their “colored” help—separate but equal. 1963 seems a bit late in the day for Hilly to have come up with this idea, but she does.
Skeeter is struck by the injustice of Hilly’s actions and their effect on Hilly’s maid, Aibileen. Lordy, where has Skeeter been all this long time? Has she just noticed segregation and its consequences in Mississippi? Did she somehow miss, among many other things, the 1962 riots following the admission of African-American student James Meredith to her own white, segregated Alma Mater, Ole Miss?
Well, whatever. Now Skeeter’s had segregation brought to her attention and, I guess, has seen some of its consequences a bit more clearly than before and what lo! This is the topic she’s been looking for. She decides to write a book about the experiences of Black maids in white homes.
She’s determined to enlist the maids themselves to help with the book and to get them to tell her their stories. To this end, she invades the lives of these Black women, starting with Hilly Holbrook’s maid, Aibileen Clark, then Minny Jackson, a maid with a bad rep among white folks, and, eventually, pulls in a number of others.
Skeeter relentlessly badgers them into helping her with her book. In so doing, we are given to believe, she empowers these women to speak out, albeit anonymously. She continually infringes upon these women’s private lives and pleads for their help. Even when Aibileen is so exhausted after a day’s work that she can barely stand, Skeeter comes uninvited to her home at night to beg her to work on the stories. I wanted to smack Skeeter upside the head for bringing the demands of the white world into the privacy of Black women's homes.
Of course the women, starting with Aibileen, give in to Skeeter's importuning. And so it comes to pass that a skinny white girl leads these Black women to tell all, the good, the bad and the ugly, about being Black maids in Jackson. I am agog at the problems with this premise.
I guess I could understand if the toilet incident were a wake-up call for Skeeter, but for the maids? Really? The novel takes place in the ‘60s in the South. Even after legislation in the ‘50s aimed at bringing about integration, almost everything was still segregated. In many states, schools, colleges, medical facilities, drinking fountains, bathrooms, buses, parks, eating establishments, libraries, theatres, ballparks, and beaches were still separated into those for “whites” and those for “colored.” The penalties for trying to cross color lines were severe, sometimes fatal. The Klan was lethally active. Even The Help mentions the assassination of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist and field secretary of the NAACP, in Jackson in June 1963 and touches on the fear this causes Aibileen.
Frankly, though, despite the fear they would have suffered, I hate to think that Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson would need some young white woman to show them how to stand up for themselves if they were ready to do so. C’mon. These women have better options than Miss Skeeter and her book, however well-intentioned.
In the 60s, Black women and men, as well as whites, were coming together throughout the South to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to bring about change in the face of strong, violent white resistance. There were also groups in existence founded by Blacks to help bring about integration and ensure civil rights for Blacks. Groups like the NAACP, SNCC, CORE, and SCLC were on the ground. The Freedom riders visited Jackson in 1961. The March on Washington took place in 1963.
Set in this context, the way these women attempt to redress the evils they face seems to me to be purely a white person’s solution. It’s petty. It trivializes the enormity of what was happening to Black folks and the scope of the changes for which the Movement was aiming.
Stockett attempts to convey the fear the women feel at the thought of reprisals for what they’re doing, but she clearly hasn’t felt that kind of fear herself and she falls far short in imagining or representing it. She does make clear, though, that the maids’ livelihoods, if not indeed their lives, are endangered by participating in Skeeter’s project, or by any behavior not condoned by whites. This makes it even harder to feel good about Skeeter’s self-serving determination to put these women at risk so she can get her book written. It is harder still to accept, first, their willingness to help her and then their protestations of gratitude toward her for giving them this opportunity. Oh please!
There is some acknowledgment of relevant events that are occurring in the South during the period covered by the novel, such as a sit in at a drug store counter, Medgar Evers’ assassination and the March on Washington, but they’re not given enough prominence or weight. For example, Skeeter plays a tacky trick on one of the tacky white folks at around the time of the killings of 4 Black girls by a KKK terrorist on Birmingham Sunday (September 15, 1963). The story of the trick supposedly makes even the New York Times. Aibileen allows that perhaps this happens because there just wasn’t much news that day and that, after all, there’s only so much you can say about the deaths of those 4 girls. Oh really? This is what a Black woman would say about the murder of 4 Black girls by the Klan? Wow.
I do think there’s a book lurking somewhere in Stockett’s experience that might be interesting if she could find and write it. I didn’t really glimpse it until I listened to Stockett’s Too little, too late Afterward to the audio book.
Stockett was raised by Demetrie, a Black nanny whom she loved very much and who died when Stockett was 16. I believe her relationship to Demetrie is probably reflected in the relationship between Aibileen and Hilly Holbrook’s 2-year-old daughter, Mae Mobley. Stockett would probably have been about Mae Mobley’s age in the early 70s. My guess is that Stockett created a character in Aibileen who feels about Mae Mobley as Stockett hopes Demetrie may have felt about her. Given the nature of their relationship, Stockett will never know. Nor do we.
If the depiction of the relationship between Aibileen and Mae Mobley is an accurate reflection of that between Demetrie and Stockett as Stockett envisioned it, there is indeed a painful and complex story there and it’s not a fairy tale.
I would be interested to know what it’s like to be that little white girl, raised by and loving a Black woman, coming to terms with the complexities and implications of that relationship, perhaps with the desire to be Demetrie’s daughter and maybe to be Black herself. Stockett strongly suggests this possibility in Aibileen’s relationship with Mae Mobley. If this was Stockett’s experience and she had told that story, I’d have been interested. Unlike The Help, it wouldn’t have necessitated speaking for Blacks, would have been less self-serving and, if done insightfully, could have been a coming-of-age story worth reading.
As far as the purported subject of the book itself, if you want to know what was really going on during the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, read someone besides Stockett. There are a lot of books out there, but don't expect any of them to make you feel good.
BUT. Whatever else she is or is not, Kathryn Stockett is a CHAMPION storyteller. About halfway through "The Help", the critic in my brain fell into a drugged sleep, leaving me to become totally immersed in what is, at its core, a fantastic story - and I use "fantastic" in both its meanings. "The Help" is a fairy tale, yes - a story that could not have happened, for many, many reasons. But I cared about all three of the women and their lives and problems, and I cheered for the deliciously witty revenge they take on the society that terrorizes them. And kudos to Stockett for pointing out what is not always obvious: that social oppression cages and diminishes the oppressor as well as the oppressed.
And I just want to say, that pie thing? I figured it out right away. I remembered Celie from "The Color Purple" and what she did to that glass of water...and what she planned to do next time.
This book made me so mad! Let me re-phrase that: the subject of this book made me so mad - and sad, while altogether mesmerised. What an emotional roller-coaster ride this was. I had to keep reminding myself that these extremely well-written, profoundly well-captured experiences were from 50 years ago (!) - though, unfortunately, similar attitudes are still the norm in places today. But how illuminating and how honest is this memoir; shaped simply as a legitimate rendition from three perspectives about shared life-changing, momentous circumstances in (what I consider is) a bleak chapter of history; with a candour and an openness that is to be lauded.
Seemingly, from out of nowhere, and emanating from a juxtaposition of unplanned elements, an unusual alliance is formed within the lives of three women, living in race-divided Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1962; leading to a young white woman, Skeeter, beginning a frank and forthright written history of the ordeals of black maids under their white Southern mistresses’ indenture. And hence a biography of the times. But the story belongs to brave, canny, sensible Aibileen raising her seventeenth white child (and counting), while still grieving the loss of her only son; and her best friend Minny, seventeen years younger and at once sassy, solid and susceptible - both a strength to each other, and to their community. As each rails internally, though more openly in Minny’s case, against their increasingly difficult and demeaning situation, a precarious rebellion is triggered - the consequences to all three, and to all those around them, meticulously detailed in the constant horrors dealt to any who dare defy the ‘natural order’ of this state.
I cannot emphasise how well this narrative works! From the moment I poked my nose inside this book, I was hooked. By employing the three discrete, distinct viewpoints and oscillating cleverly between, Ms Stockett creates a fascinating, intertwined chronicle of events - wholly genuine in tone, inexorably believable in total; and well...so very real! From these conversations emerges a reasoning, a comprehension, an instruction - albeit somewhat irrational, absurd and downright unfair in many instances - behind the every action of both ‘sides’ in this discourse; ultimately providing a deft scrutiny of the rigid hypocrisy of the times, but an understanding nonetheless. And as the enterprise gathers apace, almost beyond the participants control, the tension and foreboding in the story-line ratchet up accordingly - I was beside myself with worry as I rapidly turned the pages in anticipated dread; sharing every concern, every small victory, and every emotion alongside these wonderful women. I laughed, I cried and I willed them on regardless. Their personal endeavours begged to be told!
Furthermore, I love the title - and the parallel of this account with the genesis of the book as the premise, and its underscoring of the whole tale:
Aibileen scratches her nose, says, “What do think about just calling it...Help?
“Help, Minny repeats, like she’s never heard of the word.....
“I like...Help,” I say, because I really do.... I think that‘s a good title”....
“Good is right,” says Minny. “Cause if the thing gets printed, Lord knows we gone need some.” (p. 356)
Which, in fact, is not true. Little help will be necessary to sell this book; the hype is well and truly deserved, the book worthy of its accolades. And yes, the situations unveiled here are not limited to only one country, to one society; decidedly similarities are ongoing around the world today. My wish (and possibly the author's) is that this story, along with many others, will conceivably help expose the appalling inequities imposed on undeserving and unwilling participants in the past, help to resist such predicaments in the future and help provide a culture of enlightenment...and hope.
Now that's some Help indeed!
(Jan 1, 2011)
Often I run like crazy in the opposite direction when I see a book getting rave reviews from everybody. I put off reading this one, in spite of everyone telling me I HAD TO READ this. This time, everybody was right. I have now joined the ranks of all those who are convinced this is one of the best books written in the past year.
Set in the Mississippi of the mid 1960's as the civil rights movement was happening, the book tells the story of black women who served as "the help" in white households in Jackson MS. A recent college graduate, white girl Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan wants to be a journalist, but the only job she can find is writing the housekeeping advice column in the local paper. Raised in a household with "help", she has no idea how to answer the questions, and turns to one of her friend's maids, Aibileen, to get the answers. In the meantime, she serves as the newsletter editor for the local Junior League, where her membership brings her into contact with the prevalent and open racial and class prejudice of the era.
Her relationship with Aibileen, coupled with her rising frustration with the stereotyped role her parents and friends expect of her, leads her to seek an outlet in writing. She is encouraged by a New York editor, who suggests that she write stories of the maids and their families and submit it as a book. In a world where black women working in white houses are forced to use separate bathrooms (many of them outside), where they are taught from early girlhood to never question or talk back to whites, where they never sit with whites, keep their dishes separately, work long hours at less than minimum wage with no Social Security or other benefits, and count them selves lucky to get a $10 bonus or hand-me-down dress at Christmas, and where a white woman's word against them (whether true or not) can land them in jail, getting these maids to share their stories with her is the hardest part of Skeeter's endeavor.
The story is told by Aibileen, by her friend Minnie, and by Skeeter. Each has her own secrets, her own hopes, her own fears. They all live and work in the same circle of people, and know many of each other's secrets. Skeeter must deal with an "on again, off again" relationship with the State Senator's son, a mother who is very ill but very intent on her daughter's following all the prescribed social norms, a best friend who turns out to be a truly bigoted tyrant, and a deadline for her book that looks to be impossible.
Aibileen must encourage all the other maids, keep her own secrets and several from other maids, and still meet with Skeeter to help her record and capture the stories. Minnie, the third point of view, is a wonderfully vibrant character with a true 'smart-ass' sense of humor, a tendency to mouth off and get herself fired, and, who, for most of the book, works for a white woman Celia who is despised as "poh white trash" by all the other Junior Leaguers. Minnie is torn between staying out of Celia's business and mentoring her in proper white woman behavior. The relationship that develops between these two is so well-written that you find yourself rooting for both of them.
The tension builds as Skeeter writes the stories, changing the names and the town, and assures them that it will be published anonymously, while the maids worry what will happen if their white families ever realize who they really are, and what is being said about them publicly.
The book is incredibly well written, and the audio reading is rich with dialect and accents. It has truly believable characters, a range of issues related to the overall racial and class dynamic, and a plot that builds one step at a time holding the reader's attention from the beginning. It flows so well that it is impossible to put it down. One of my few five star reads this year.
Aibileen is a black woman in her fifties who, like most of her peers in the book, has spent her entire adult life working as a domestic for white families in Jackson. She has raised 17 white babies, most whom had to be taught not to call her "mama." Aibileen's life has been quiet, the only drama happening two years before the novel begins, when her son was seriously injured in an industrial accident and died after being dumped outside the colored hospital by his white bosses.
Minnie, in her thirties and also a domestic, has had a more checkered career than her friend. She's an excellent housekeeper and cook, but just doesn't know how curb her tongue. Minnie's been fired from 19 jobs, all for her sassy attitude.
Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is a white woman, the only unmarried one in her group of former sorority sisters who are now bridge-playing Junior Leaguers. Tall and ungainly and still living at home, she's socially awkward but she does know for sure that there's more to life than bridge games and Junior League meetings. In her quest to make something of her life Skeeter happens upon a project which will change the lives of all of the women in the book: an oral history--completely anonymous--of relations between white families and the black domestics who are simultaneously part of and separate from them.
Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help has done an admirable job of capturing the voices of these different women, and of conveying the conflicting feelings they feel every day of their lives. The Help is a natural for book groups; its publication so soon after our first African American president has taken office reinforces how far we've come as a country, but should, one hopes, remind us not to become complacent.
In the audio version, the voices of the three woman who narrate the main characters in the story ~ Skeeter. Abilene and Minnie ~ are so spot-on and wonderful that I could have listened to them recite grocery lists. They made the characters so real, their sorrows and happiness, fears and courage, foibles and insightfulness. Skeeter comes off at first as weak and self-serving, but the growth she experiences throughout the novel resulted in a compassionate young woman with the beginnings of a real backbone. Abilene is the rock upon which everyone else seemed to anchor themselves, though it is Minnie who turns out to have the most faith and courage. I loved the way she talks about Miz Celia and Mistah Johnny, about Miz Hilly the other society ladies. For all her antagonism, I could hear the deep pain and deeper compassion that, for all she tries to keep it hidden, peeks through everything she does.
I've heard some reviewers say that is not the way people talked back then, but it sure worked for this story. I've also heard some reviewers protest that life was not that way back in the 60s in Mississippi. All I know is that I was in my early 20s during that period, and the rendering in this novel is much as I remember it, though I lived in Chicago at the time. Still, that's very much that way I remember life being in Chicago, when first Ashland Avenue and then Damon Avenue were the lines of demarcation (black neighborhoods were east and white neighborhoods west of those streets) and talk in the white neighborhoods included words like "white flight," and I sincerely doubt that Chicago was worse than Jackson, Mississippi when it came to how black Americans were treated, the attitudes of whites toward blacks and segregation, or the violent reaction of the white segregationists to the civil rights movement.
The novel worked for me on so many different levels: as a picture of what life was like in the south in the early 60s, as a character study of people on both sides of the civil rights/segregation question, and as a ripping good story. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me feel shamed and proud, both at the same time. Because ultimately this was a novel about the human spirit, about how everyone's got a story yet how many of those stories are very much alike, and how a few people working for the good of all can make a huge difference.
This has been adapted for film, and it's one film adaptation I am looking forward to seeing.
An indication of how thoroughly distracted I was: I loathe, despise, and abominate the present tense in fiction. It's silly to admit it, but I was halfway through the book before it really registered that all three points of view in The Help are present tense. I grew used to it in Aibileen's section – it was just a part of the dialect, of Aibileen's voice; the same was true of Minny's, and by the time I started Skeeter's first chapter I was well beyond simply engrossed. I literally did a double-take when for some reason one present-tense usage registered It was simply that I was paying far more attention to what was happening than to how it was written – and it's been a very long time since that happened, that thoroughly.
It should not have been so very compulsively readable. Present tense; dialect to one degree or another throughout; but the three women whose voices tell the story are so vibrant and alive that Kathryn Stockett might have been able to get away with future tense Pig Latin and still produced gold. (I wouldn't recommend it, however.) Aibileen and Minny and Skeeter are each in her way wounded, and are not about to be sharing everything right off with someone they know as little as the reader. It takes time to gain their friendship and their confidence, and in the meantime the secrets they keep are only hinted at, to torment and tease. When the secrets are finally revealed, in their own time, they are equal to their buildup. Again, not something easily pulled off.
Each section is written just as if the narrator were talking to the reader, truly in her voice. Each woman's voice belongs to her and her alone. Aibileen's dialect is heavy, warm but mildly ironic, bitterness and sorrow always just below the surface – or higher. I adore Aibileen. Minny's mother was a schoolteacher and had no patience for slang, and Minny has never quite lapsed from her high standards; neither of these women is stupid, not by a long mark, but Minny's voice has a closer relationship to formal grammar – along with a bigger helping of sarcasm and bitterness. Skeeter is a college girl, and her voice, always worried, is closest to standard – but she is still a Mississippi girl and still calls the Harper & Row editor Missus Stein. One test of good fiction writing is whether a character's dialogue can be matched to that character based on style and syntax alone. Any single paragraph in this book can pass that test.
I feel a little stupid that some of the dangers of the time and place never occurred to me. The 60's aren't my milieu. I happily missed nearly all the decade, and the only thing I've regretted was the moon launch (and maybe the Beatles). Plus I'm a Northern girl; even at the worst of it, before I was born, it wasn't quite as bad here. (Partly because, I find, segregation was more due to strictly separated neighborhoods (or rather neighborhoods and ghettos) than law.) I knew some of it, of course. I knew the basics of the story of Emmet Till (though I didn't realize he was only 14; or maybe it was another case I had heard of. There were no doubt many). But I simply was clueless about how prevalent and constant the danger was. Every day, every action, every word and look and conversation and quirk of an eyebrow might be scrutinized, and might lead to … anything. Being fired; being beaten; being killed. Crosses burned, houses burned, bodies burned. And even beyond the danger, almost as hard to live with had to be the constant, continuous barrage of words. Even someone otherwise not unfriendly thought nothing of what is now (happily almost universally) considered outrageous remarks. Complete strangers were free to say appalling things.
I know – I've been sheltered, that this was such a revelation to me. Don't think I'm not, in a large way, grateful.
If I had been forced to say what I expected from The Help it would probably have been social commentary. Heart-warming. Heartstring-tugging. Some facile tale of some white girl's exposé on racial inequality. I was shocked, actually shocked, at the level of anxiety in this novel – it was more intense than a great many books intended as suspense novels. There was the not-quite comic suspense of what exactly the deal was with the pie. But, more, much more, there was the concern, the need to know if these women were going to be all right. There was no guarantee of that, none. Someone's review of another book nailed it:
"Yes, somehow Mason made even those aspects of the novel incredibly interesting though it’s a subject in which I have very little interest. I sympathised very much with Eloise’s terrors and her courage at facing them – in fact I found I couldn’t stop worrying about her even when I wasn’t reading the book."
I cared about these people. (Not characters: people.) I worried about them – yes, even when I wasn't reading the book. I learned from this, factually and emotionally. I was deeply impressed – this was a beautiful, beautiful book.
The Help was narrated by two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, and a young white woman, Skeeter. Through their stories, we learn about what it was like to be black maid to white employers during the time of segregation. For many maids, the experience was humiliating – backbreaking work for little pay, hostile employers and segregated bathrooms, forks and dish towels. Other maids, however, formed warm and loving relationships with their employers, especially with the children they helped raise. This love, however, was always disguised and hidden. It would be deadly for anyone to know to about it.
To me, the hallmark of a good Southern novel are the excellent characters, and The Help was no exception. I grew angry when the maids were mistreated, cheered for them when something good happened to them and admired the bravery of every woman – black and white – who defied the racial norms to make things better in Jackson. You’ll cheer and jeer throughout this novel – but I don’t think anyone could be very disappointed.
Highly recommended, The Help will go down as one my favorite books of 2009 – a must-read for anyone interested in Southern Literature, race and gender relations and just plain good writing. I wait anxiously to see what the future holds for Kathryn Stockett.
The next narrator is Minny Jackson. She's close friends with Aibileen and also works as a maid, but unfortunately keeps getting fired because she can't help but speak her mind and sass anyone—including her white employers—any time she feels like it, which is very often. Her saving grace is that she's one of the best cooks around, and her caramel cake is famous throughout Jackson. When we meet Minny, she is working for Hilly Holbrook, who is Elizabeth Leefolt's childhood friend. Hilly takes a lot of place in this story, because she has definite opinions about where the help does and does not belong, and she makes it her mission to ensure every white person in Jackson define the boundaries likewise.
Finally, our third narrator is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan. She's also a childhood friend of both Elizabeth and Hilly's and the three meet regularly to play bridge and gossip. Skeeter has just graduated from Ole Miss, and on her return home, is constantly pressured by her mother to find a husband and start a family. But Skeeter has other aspirations and wants to become a writer. On her return, she's discovered that Constantine, the maid who has raised her and been her closest confidante has been replaced, and Skeeter is desperate to get in touch with Constantine again and find out why she's moved away to Chicago with no explanation.
These three memorable women take turns telling us their story in which their lives are intertwined. Together, they decide to redefine the limits placed by the likes of Hilly Holbrook and Jim Crowe and his supposedly "separate but equal" laws for black Americans. It's a gripping story and one can't help but feel strongly for all three women as they face their daily challenges and struggle to work together and make a difference. Along the way there are many other interesting characters, and plenty of family secrets are revealed. I absolutely loved this book, which I listened to on the excellent audiobook version which is narrated by three different women. The only reason I didn't give this novel a higher rating is that there was a minor technicality and something also bothered me about the ending, though I couldn't describe exactly what that is. The movie version is due out this summer and I can't wait to see it.
The biggest problem I had with the story is the interaction with the editor in New York. I found it hard to believe that someone at a major publishing house would do the things she did in the book. The criteria she set for the book seemed arbitrary, and the explanations were weak for the deadlines she kept issuing. I also noticed a lot of time-related problems. For instance, one character has a conversation with her mother in the morning and refers to what she saw "this afternoon." One of the maids, Louvenia, has a grandson who is a contemporary of Aibileen's son, Treelore, who had died several years earlier at age 24. Aibileen has her 54th birthday in the middle of the book, and later Louvenia is said to be ten years younger than Aibileen. (Actually, Aibileen says Louvenia's ears are ten years younger than Aibileen's.) A 44-year-old with a grandson approaching thirty? I don't think so! I also thought it was odd that, although the book's time frame extends through 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 wasn't mentioned, except perhaps indirectly. This sentence is as close as it got: "Just two months ago the white library started letting colored people in." Based on the chronology of the events in the book, that would have been just about the time the Civil Rights Act became law.
A good book that, with a little more editing, could have been great.
To make matters worse, after reading the first few pages I was so distressed by what I found there that I decided to look for reviews, assuming I probably would not read any further. A Google search turned up a website entirely devoted to an analysis of the novel and movie, comparing them with the way African Americans have been portrayed in the American media throughout its history. The history as the reviewer presented it was more or less in accord with my own experience, and was indeed shameful and consistent. But the fact that The Help, if it was indeed a fact, should be of a piece with those embarrassing films and books where "Negro" characters were portrayed as idiots or objects of ridicule seemed astonishing in the second decade of the 21st century, not because such attitudes have disappeared but because the culture has become so socially correct in its public face that such portrayals are self-censored before they ever make their appearances. You don't see out-and-out denigration of people of African descent in most of the media, with the exception of a few right-wing talk show hosts, and even they will vehemently deny they intended any such thing. But you can still see it on the street firsthand, even in a supposedly liberal city like New York, in situations where it hardly seems relevant, such as during a confrontation between a driver and a pedestrian about who has the right-of-way, a situation you would not think calls for an ugly “racial” epithet. More importantly, it's still endemic to the power structure of society at the level ordinary people experience it, i.e. in the neighborhoods where the police, mostly "white" and rarely residents of the city they work for, routinely harass, humiliate and do worse, sometimes much worse, to young African-American men for no other reason that they are "black." But we have learned how to keep all this unpleasantness out of sight. Or so I had thought.
This was all the more reason why I found the opening pages of The Help embarrassing to the point of physical pain. Surely the author, a white Southerner, was not having her "black" characters speak in that kind of “Negro” dialect, so reminiscent of the way African Americans spoke in those movies and books of fifty or a hundred years ago? Had the country relapsed into its openly racist past when African-Americans could be openly portrayed as ignorant and ridiculous?
Then I read the rest of the book. For, the truth be told, the author is nothing if not a good storyteller, and I have grown tired of trying to read more ambitious practitioners of her craft, (giving them the benefit of the doubt) and having to put them down long before I get through the first chapter. And gradually I came to accept the dialect in which the African-American maids, the focus of the book set in the segregated South of the 1950s, spoke and thought. I even began to question the reasons for my first reaction—embarrassment at being self-identified “racially” with the author of such an apparent travesty. Had I been embarrassed because of the stereotype she seemed to be blatantly reinforcing, or did I want on some deeper level to deny the reality of the way the maids’ spoke, believing such an acceptance somehow reflected on my credentials as a fair-minded person? Was I succumbing to the patronizing mindset and social correctness I can also fall into when I hear my neighbors speak a New York version of that same dialect, excusing them for not speaking standard English because of their social marginalization (something many of their fellow African Americans do not do, knowing they can’t afford excuses in a society where you start off five yards behind everybody else because of your skin color)--as if it were up to me to make excuses or any other kind of exemption for them based on their “race”? Did I even know how domestic servants in the Deep South talked in those days, or speak now, for that matter?
The truth is, The Help is a generally well-told story, with many flaws, some of them grievous. It’s also not without real prejudice that operates on a level that may pass below the radar of most readers. We haven’t, after all, so much thrown off prejudice as made it more subtle, to the point of vanishing—if only vanishing from the recognition of “whites,” even liberal “whites.”
However, the young women who employ the maids in The Help all talk in properly-spelled, standard English, if they do so with a suggestion of Southernese (“you all”). I suppose to the ear of the author that seems reasonable, though you would think her years living in New York might have raised her consciousness about the relativity of these things. Does it make sense for a maid to say “I’s” but not for her mistress to say “Ah aim” instead of “I am”? I think this may be the point at which our blogger/reviewer had his tail lit afire. The use of standard orthography for “white” speech and elaborate phonetic transcription for the maids’ seems to indicate a distinction based upon a level of intellectual sophistication if not mental ability. I believe the novel overcomes most of that implication, but if I were African American I’m not sure I would be so forgiving.
But her characters live, and isn't that the test of good fiction no matter what we're told by the lit-crits who insist it's all about exquisite prose, plot and character being as passé as medieval romances? This is not a great work of art, but in an environment where so much that is banal and boring is touted as great literature, it shows that a good story well-told with characters that come alive can still attract a large audience. I find that reassuring.
Kathryn Stockett has written an absolutely amazing book. I don’t have enough superlatives to describe it. The story itself is compellingly readable and the dialogue of the African American maids is spot on. The author has a beautiful ability to tell the stories of the maids without being condescending or sensationalizing the events described. When Miss Hilly strongly suggested that Miss Elizabeth build a separate bathroom for Miss Elizabeth’s maid, Aibileen, I could feel once again the shame I felt as a young teenager. I laughed and I cried along with the characters and felt like I was actually walking those blistering, hot streets of Jackson, Mississippi. I could not read this book fast enough and was terribly sad when I finished it—the signs of a great book. I can hardly wait until Ms. Stockett publishes her next book.
But something is missing. Yes, I found the book hard to put down, and in fact thoroughly enjoyed the reading of it. Without doubt, the principal black characters – the black maids Aibileen and Milly -- are virtually perfect in both voice and deed, standout characters in almost every way. They are the heart of the book, and certainly provide what power it has to offer. The white protagonist, not so much. She is too shallow, somehow failing to measure up to her own goals, her times or the larger purpose of her author. Imagine To Kill a Mockingbird without Atticus Finch, or The Grapes of Wrath without Ma Joad, and you’ll see how a great novel might be just an ordinary one. A good read, but little more.
When I turned the final page, I realized I knew the women in this book; I knew the black women personally and had heard similar stories of the women they worked for. Stockett has captured the lives, varied personalities, talents and faults of all these women, and managed to reveal us how each truly feels inside their differing exteriors. She's integrated the voices of all her characters into an engrossing story that carries you all the way through the book's 34 chapters.
I'll be recommending this book to my friends, and encouraging them to read the entire thing...all the way through the acknowledgements and Stockett's final personal post script. This book should provide a foundation for establishing a healing dialogue that will continue to change our society, beginning with 'the help' of the generation-to-generation link that connected these women.
Set in Mississippi circa the 1960's, the story focuses on three women: Skeeter, a white woman from a wealthy family who dreams of becoming a writer; Abileen, an intelligent black maid (with a closet love of reading and writing) who happens to work for one of Skeeter's friends; and Minny, a spitfire who has trouble keeping her mouth in check around the white women for whom she works, putting her at odds with another of Skeeter's friends. The narrative is told, in alternating points of view, by these three women who begin meeting in secret to write an anonymous book about what it's like to work as a black maid in Mississippi.
The book is funny, never veering too far off into heart-warming territory, and captures the dividing lines between race and class in the South. The characters are likable and the message is clear, but not overly didactic. And yet, there were a few things that bugged me enough to keep me from giving it a 4 star:
A) Other than a half-hearted stab at dialect, there's little to differentiate the voices of these three women. They have radically different backgrounds and personalities, but these differences seem "told" rather than "shown" in a truly distinctive voice for each character.
B) The character of Skeeter goes through a transformation toward the end of the book and becomes a hippie. The catalyst: hearing Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing" and buying a mini-skirt. That seemed a sloppy and shorthand way of communicating a radical shift in values and perspectives. As a result, I just couldn't buy what Stockett was selling in terms of Skeeter.
C) What happened to the naked guy that Celia beat the holy living sh*t out of? Apparently the police never found him, despite the fact that he was last seen running through the woods with an unhinged jaw and what was apparently quite an impressive member in his hand. Bizarre.
D) Despite the fact that all of this took place during a particularly race-charged time period when blacks were beaten, lynched, etc. for crossing racial barriers, you never really feel like these women are in palpable danger. Even toward the end, things work out a little too neatly for them. Stockett pulled her punches, though she is to be commended for writing about the violence done to others during that time period.
Final analysis: I liked it, I would recommend it, and I would read another of her books. I just hope that I get to it before I develop any preconceived notions of what to expect.
As a male reading this book, not only have I realised how far society has come in terms of ending racism, but also ending the stigmas of being a woman. This book was a win for both race relations and gender relations.
[The Help] is an oddly "feel good" book for white Americans who want to feel superior to Southerners who advocated segregation and oppression, And it's not a bad history lesson for our children and grandchildren who hopefully go to integrated classrooms and labor in integrated work environments and think we live in a post-racist society.
It's engaging, but a bit clunky and somewhat unbelievable. Do I believe the protagonists would get away so easily with this kind of expose -- no. Do I believe their lives went forward so hopefully -- no. Do I believe Skeeter made a career for herself in NYC -- maybe.
I'd be fascinated by a study made of the comparison between black and white readers of their reception of this book and of the film (which I actually was more skillfully done than the novel).
I thought this was especially well-written for a debut novel. Stockett seems to really capture the southern attitudes and dialect and as the story continues, it gets harder & harder to put down. I can't find much at all negative to say about this one, except that the last chapter or two seemed a little weak to me, not quite living up to the caliber of the rest of the book. But overall, I great read and highly recommended. I read a combination of the book and audio, and would especially recommend the audio. Although I was not previously familiar with any of the readers, they were excellent.
Kathryn Stockett gives readers an intimate look into the lives of Southern women and the maids who work for them. By constantly shifting the point of view from one character to another, the book reveals the prejudices of the day and the hardships they create. It not only addresses race, but class and gender. Highly engaging and entertaining, The Help is an excellent book to spark conversations among high school students and adults about social issues, both past and present.
There are, however, some valid criticisms to be made about The Help. Each of the characters seems to be crafted to fit one stereotype or another: the manipulative queen bee, the smart girl who isn’t pretty, the wise black woman who loves the white child contrasted with the white woman who cannot love, the abusive or useless black men. Teachers using The Help in the classroom will want to carefully address misconceptions that might arise from these stereotypes.
This was the last audio book I listened to last year and I really enjoyed it. There were times where I was exasperated by Skeeter, where I want to point out that she's not that much different from her friends in the Junior League. She's using Aibileen, Minnie, and the others for her own gain. Pushing them outside of their comfort zones and subtly manipulating Aibileen with guilt. Still, Skeeter has a good heart and is not any more self-centered than any other recent college graduate. For me, I will forever keep the character of Aibileen in my heart. She is who made The Help for me.
The book is set in the early 1960s, and told from the POV of three women, Skeeter, a young white woman writing a book called "The Help" about the lives of African American domestics; and Aibileen and Minny, two of those aforementioned domestics.
I don't have a problem with a white woman writing in the voice of a black woman. As a woman writer I've written in the voices of men, and people of other races. I believe a writer can pull it off if she does it well, with compassion and knowledge. I did wince occasionally when the African American characters talked in thick "Lawd-ain't-it-sure-enough-hot" dialect, but overlooked it since it didn't rely on the dread phonetic spelling, and may be the author's recollection of the period.
What's more problematic for me is the question at the heart of this novel, which I perceived this way: is Skeeter, or is she not, exploiting the very women she enlists to help her write this book? Stockett doesn't completely ignore the issue, but she gives it very short shrift indeed. A young maid, Gretchen, does confront Skeeter by calling her "Another white lady trying to make a dollar off of colored people." But the matter is quickly dropped when Aibileen says that no, she's not. Skeeter becomes less of a writer than a typist as the maids tell their own stories, publishes the book anonymously in order to protect the maids, shares the profits...and in the end the book's publication is the impetus for transformation in the lives of all three women.
Still, it feels very much like Skeeter's book. Her POV is the most nuanced, and the most similar to the author's own life. (They both grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and both go off to NYC to become writers.) The scenes with Aibeleen and the little girl she cares for are the most poignant, which I suspect also reflects the author's experience. Fair enough. And yet, I can't help but feel there is some depth missing here. Why was I made a little uncomfortable, for example, when the maids continued to refer to the white women who treated them like garbage -- forcing them to wash their hands in bleach, use separate toilets, fire them at will, even have them imprisoned -- as Miss Hilly or Miss Elizabeth?
The characters are likable, the plot entertaining and the author's afterward shows her intentions are clearly in the right place. I am a white Canadian woman who grew up in the sixties. Thus, I can't say how accurate this portrayal of black women's lives in 1960 in Mississippi is. Still, it feels a little too sweet somehow. Yes, a young man is blinded for accidentally using the wrong restroom, and there is anxiety among the woman that they may be targeted for similar violence if their identities are revealed, but the overall tone is perhaps a little too sweet, even with the shadow of fear Stockett often refers to. As I read, I couldn't help but wonder how the tone might have changed if it were written by someone on the other side of the paycheck. I found myself curious about how a co-authored book might have turned out. Of course, perhaps those are not questions I have a right to ask. An author's vision is what it is, and I applaud Stockett for exploring her feelings toward her upbringing. It's a good place to start. I'll be curious to see what she does next.
The biggest fault of The Help is its perpetuation of the Mammy paradigm – African-Americans who are only too happy to care for and essentially raise the children and run the household of their wealthy, white owners/employers. Because this was written by a white woman of privilege, she cannot understand the dangers embraced by Aibileen, Minny and the other maids, or even the dangers they faced on a daily basis by virtue of their skin color in a historically racist community. To assume that she does understand their thoughts, their motivations, their true feelings on any subject, especially raising their employer’s children, is presumptuous and arrogant. Ms. Stockett, in an afterword to the novel, mentions how important her own relationship with her nanny was to her, but then she uses that to justify and stereotype all African-American nannies as eager and nurturing. While a reader is left with no doubt as to the genuine fondness Ms. Stockett has for her nanny, one is hard-pressed to make the leap to generalizing about all such situations. More importantly, no white woman will ever be able to truly comprehend what it was like to be an African-American in the South in the 1960s.
While The Help has received rave reviews for its print version, it truly shines on audio. Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell perfectly embody their characters, especially Octavia Spencer – which makes sense since she plays Minny in the movie version as well. The listener gets a true sense of each person’s character - her feelings, her mettle. This is something more than just the words on the page, and audio version is better for these additions. Similarly, the four distinct voices help the listener differentiate between the main characters, something which has been touted as problematic in the print version. The audio performances only enhance an already enchanting story.
The Help is fundamentally a great story. Of that there can be no doubt. All of the characters are sympathetic, entertaining, and simply enjoyable. However, the fact remains that a Caucasian woman is telling a story about a society and a culture about which she has no hope of ever truly understanding or empathizing. While Ms. Stockett stresses the importance of the relationship she had with her African-American housekeeper while growing up, she can never and will never know how her housekeeper felt. While she does not glorify housekeeping in the South during the 1960s, she does create relationships that she cannot know were ever genuine. Because of this, The Help remains difficult to embrace in its entirety. One can enjoy the story for its fictional elements and the emotions it creates, but a reader should remain keenly aware that this is just one person's side of the story. If only Ms. Stockett would have thought to have a co-author. A story about the African-American experience in 1960s Mississippi written by an African-American woman would have made The Help truly amazing.