The Help by Kathryn Stockett

2009. Berkley. Paperback. 534 pages.

From: borrowed from co-worker who was borrowing from her sister

In a nutshell:

In case you do not know the plot of this omnipresent book, it is the story of Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. Aibileen and Minny are two black women who work as maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the year 1962. They are good friends, despite differences in age, personality and family situation. Skeeter (whose real first name is Eugenia) is a young white woman come home to Jackson, looking to become a writer. Sparked by the mysterious disappearance of her family’s maid Constantine, Skeeter tries to enlist Aibileen and other maids to tell their stories to her, which she hopes to make into a book. The book’s narrative is told from the first person perspectives of all three women in turn.

Backstory and brief thoughts:

I went into The Help with a skepticism fueled by its wild popularity and by its status as the current queen of book club books. I have not had success with book club favorites in the past; Water for Elephants, The Secret Life of Bees, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter were all flops for me.

My co-worker Kim asked me earlier this year if I had read The Help. I had not. We discovered that we shared a mutual wariness about the book. For a book that neither of us had read, we talked about it quite a bit over the course of some weeks. The film was just about to come out, and we talked about the articles that we had read about The Help (book and film). I won’t deny that we particularly took notice of the ones that confirmed that the story wasn’t awesome as the hype would have us believe.

Finally, one day, Kim said to me, “look what I have” and held up a copy of The Help that her sister had lent her. Co-worker Jen meanwhile had borrowed the audiobook from the library and was listening to it on her commute. When Kim was partway through it, she said, a little guiltily, “Would it be bad if I liked the book?” Jen and I assured her that it would be okay.

After Kim was done, it was my turn. After her reaction, I wasn’t surprised to find that it is a likable book. I know some readers don’t like books in dialect, but that isn’t something that’s come up for me before, so it wasn’t an issue. I was more concerned that it was going to be pandering, or that its approach to race relations would involve Skeeter as a white savior character. But actually Skeeter has her own prejudices and ignorance to overcome. And there is one scene where she offers to pull some family influence to help in a maid’s crisis, but is told (not meanly) that won’t be necessary.

Aibileen’s perpetual dilemma of raising white children who grow up to despise her for the color of her skin was perhaps the most compelling storyline for me. I liked the way that storyline highlighted the incredible way in which people can be so intertwined in each others’ lives and yet one side still insists on ridiculous, senseless boundaries.

The book has been reviewed so thoroughly that I don’t feel driven to discuss the novel in great depth. I just thought I’d share the story of how this holdout finally gave in and enjoyed The Help. If you have any questions about what I thought about specific aspects, ask away in the comments.

Excerpts from other reviews:

The Reading Ape – “Reading about racism in the South during the Civil Rights Movement feels almost like a moral holiday, a reprieve from the complexity and intransigence of contemporary racism. Thus, the frustration of The Help is that while it is very readable and rich, it is, for a book about racism, unbelievably safe.”

Rebecca Reads – “I felt drawn in to the setting; it was like I was in Jackson, Mississippi. I liked that, and as my story above attests, I couldn’t stop reading this book once I started. I wanted to know how it all worked out . . .”

write meg! – “An important novel that tackles Major Issues that still manages to be entertaining, lively, affecting and unbelievably moving? It’s a rare find, friends, and it gets my absolute highest recommendation.”

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6 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction

6 responses to “The Help by Kathryn Stockett

  1. Some of the criticism that has been levied against this novel seems to come from people who haven’t actually read the book, and that’s disappointing (I believe that you should read/watch something if you are openly espousing a critical view of it, not meaning the doubts like you’ve described having, but out-and-out putting it down). For instance, equating the characters of Aibileen and Mammy (from Gone with the Wind): one’s experience of racism is highly nuanced and other character is a caricature, a shell that reflects deeply rooted prejudice. At the very least, the book gets people talking…and that’s always a good thing!

  2. I’m pleased to hear that this novel is worth reading as it is one of the few to have raised any interest in me for some time. I would have been disappointed to learn it was pat or formulaic. I think I might set this one up for holiday reading when I can really savour it.

  3. This book has caused such a stir. I really enjoyed it when I read it, but after hearing more about it, I think I am more lukewarm about it. I just hope people don’t go read it or watch the movie and then suddenly think they totally understand the Civil Rights movement and how hard it must have been.

    • I hope not either, but rather that it’s stoked curiosity from some to read more about the Civil Rights movement. I know I have a book on my shelves that I want to get around to reading, a non-fiction book about the experiences of those involved.

  4. I’m happy to hear that you, and others, were initially skeptical because of its popularity. I’ve been debating whether or not to pick it up and give it a try, but yea, I am wary of it. But perhaps I will read it now.

  5. I loved the movie! Haven’t really got down to reading the book…don’t know whether I will ever do that 😛

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