The Help

I read The Help for my June book club, as it came up surprisingly quick on the hold list at the library. (I just got Wolf Hall last week, and I put it on hold in—wait for it—January.) So many people have written reviews of The Help, it seemed pointless to bother writing one of my own, but I at least wanted to share some thoughts…thoughts that, now that I read through them, sound suspiciously like a review. Oh well. Might as well go all the way and tell you up front: If I were a giver of stars, I would give this book a solid three out of five. I don’t think it lives up to all the hype—it will never, for example, be equal to To Kill a Mockingbird—but it is a pretty solid book, and far better than a lot of popular nonsense.

General plot synopsis (like you need it, but just in case): The Help is the story of white families and their African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. The novel switches between several first-person points of view: that of two maids, Aibileen and Minny, and a white girl named Miss Skeeter. Miss Skeeter is a graduate of Ole Miss, and she wants to be a writer. After college she applied for a job at Harper & Row, but never heard a thing until one day one of their editors contacted her out of the blue and offered her some advice: she should get a job writing at the paper, and she should keep her eyes open for things she can write a book about. Miss Skeeter (or, just Skeeter, really—only the maids use the “Miss”) gets a job working at the paper as Miss Myrna, the housekeeping-advice columnist. Skeeter has always been taken care of by maids and knows next to nothing about housekeeping, so she enlists the help (no pun intended) of her friend’s maid, Aibileen. Skeeter also has an ulterior motive in befriending (if that’s the right word—using is probably better) Aibileen: she is trying to find out what happened to her own maid, Constantine, who left abruptly without saying goodbye before Skeeter returned from college. In talking to Aibileen, Skeeter has an epiphany about the subject of the book she wants to write: the help.

The writing is clean and even, and Stockett manages the trick of shifting points of view rather well—no easy feat. I am still not sure how I feel about her using a black dialect for the maids, but I don’t think it got in the way of the story too much, and Aibileen and Minny’s voices were distinct. My favorite parts of the book belonged to Minny and Miss Celia and their relationship, which I thought was the most complex and well-rounded in the book, next to Aibileen and Mae Mobley. One thing those sections, and this book in particular, shows very successfully is that love is complicated, and so is hate, and sometimes they sit right next to each other in the same heart.

In telling this story, I believe Stockett, like Skeeter, has only good intentions, but her view is limited, and she cannot escape the context of her own life. This would have been a very different book if it had been written by someone who did not have such passionate and conflicted feelings about her family’s own maid. I’ve read that some people are greatly offended by her attempt to write from the point of view of the maids, or to say that a loving relationship existed in what was essentially the vestige of a master-slave society. While I understand that and think it is valid on some level, I also think that does not make Stockett’s experience of things any less authentic. I wonder if Stockett’s book is so widely embraced because it makes white people feel better about the whole thing, puts it in a nice little Lifetime movie wrapper that teaches us all a lesson. I don’t mean to be snide about this—just to pose the question. Even though the story has its merits, I don’t think it would do justice to the time if this were to become the book to represent what America was like, and I thank goodness we have other accounts.

Some things do bother me about this book. For one thing, I felt that even the best-drawn characters (Aibileen, Minny, Miss Celia, Yule May) came dangerously close to being types. I wish in particular that Skeeter had been less generic. Instead, she is the general misfit: the tall, awkward smart girl among all the petite, pretty Junior League girls who are already married. She is smart, and her intelligence is thought of as a hindrance. She wants to be a writer. How many heroines like this exist in literature, with these same characteristics? Stockett tries to round her out—for example, saying she reads banned books, and that Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is one of her favorites, but these details seem forced into the story for that very reason and not organic to the character.

Almost everybody else in the book is broadly drawn: the racist-to-the-core Hilly; the wife-beating drunk Leroy, Minny’s husband; and, of course, the New York editor “Missus” Stein, who, when Skeeter tells her to have a Merry Christmas at one point in the book, replies, “We call it Hanukkah, but thank you, Miss Phelan,” because we all know that New York, and publishing in particular, is filled with rude Jews. That’s one thing that almost made me put the book down, but I was almost finished, so I kept going.

There’s also an unbelievable amount of drama. The book is just chock-full of sad stories, people lost and heartbroken and dying, but not terribly original. This is exactly the kind of book I would have loved when I was fourteen or fifteen. And then there are the (to me) annoying references to “real” events peppered throughout the book, like people might not believe the story if Stockett hadn’t thrown in not only the gratuitous references to Martin Luther King Junior, Medgar Evers, and the rest of the civil rights movement, but also to To Kill a Mockingbird, the pill, Valium, the Beatles (although the song, “Love Me Do,”  Skeeter whistles at one point in the book had not yet been released as a single in the United States), Bob Dylan, and Emilio Pucci. Sometimes it’s better to let the audience do the work of filling in these sorts of details, so that the story can take the stage. It almost felt like Stockett thought it might not be believable if she didn’t get in every detail about the early 60s.

But those things are mostly petty, and I wanted to tell you why I was withholding those two stars. The last thing is this: I would have liked to hear more about the maids, and I would have liked the chance, actually, to get inside Miss Leefolt’s or Miss Hilly’s head and see what was going on in there. Having a first-person account of one of those characters would have balanced things out a bit. As much as I despise racism, I think it’s valuable to understand how someone who can espouse such ideas thinks, what she believes her logic is from her actual point of view, and not to see it from the outside, where it simply (to this book’s audience) sounds audacious. Fear is a very real thing, which is why it drives people to such desperate measures.

Overall, though, The Help is a worthwhile read, if you should happen to pick it up. It was on my list to read this year, so I’m happy I got to it.

4 thoughts on “The Help

  1. Overall, I enjoyed this book. We haven’t discussed it yet in my book club but I’m looking forward to it.

    Here’s the thing that bothered me most about the book: the magical realism. I thought the character of Aibileen was just too good to be true. The magical quality of her written prayers was hokey to me.

  2. I do intend to read this at some point, but I’ve pretty much found that when books blow up all over the blogosphere, I am generally disappointed when I finally read them. Sometimes I wonder if there’s something diluted or watered down in books that have such broad appeal, just because in order for that many people to like them, they’ve got to sell out a little… I have no idea if that’s the case at all! Just something to think about!

  3. “I wonder if Stockett’s book is so widely embraced because it makes white people feel better about the whole thing, puts it in a nice little Lifetime movie wrapper that teaches us all a lesson.”

    So weird, I was just thinking about this very issue as I was scrolling through Google Reader today. There seem to be a lot of books written (by white people) about slavery and pre-civil rights racism, from the point of view of a sympathetic white character who for whatever reason comes to identify with also-sympathetic black characters. I have very, very mixed feelings about it, because there does seem to be an element of letting white America off the hook by letting them be that sympathetic white character, making it easy for us to feel that, you know, if we had been in those places at those times, we’d have been that sympathetic white girl. I’m not sure that’s what’s going on, but I do wonder about it, and it bothers me.

  4. Sherry, that magical realism thing didn’t even really register with me! I was probably too busy noticing every contemporary reference…funny what our different radars will pick up.

    Steph, that’s exactly what I meant with the Lifetime movie comment. I thought the book was good, and it does take certain risks, but I wonder if Stockett or her editors said, “That’s enough.” I would have liked to see her push it a bit more, because the subject is interesting and she was on the verge of some great characters.

    Jenny, I guess that’s why I thought more characters in the book needed even treatment. Racism is wrong, but it doesn’t mean we are all immune, and if we don’t understand and explore the reasons for it on all sides (like fear based on lack of power or what-have-you) then it stagnates, and we end up with a stalemate instead of resolution. All one has to do these days is turn the television dial to certain channels to see that.

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