Cecily's Reviews > The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
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really liked it
bookshelves: canada-and-usa

This is a powerful story about women's relationships with each other, and how they are affected by race (and class), told from the viewpoints of three women (two black maids and a young white woman). It is set in segregated Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962-64, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, but it's local and domestic, rather than looking at the big picture.

The first third of the book establishes the main characters and their situation and relationships; the rest of it revolves around a dangerous plan to write about their lives: it ends up reading as if it's a book about how this book was created (though the notes at the end make it clear that it isn't).

It is a novel about individuals, and makes no pretence of being a history of the civil rights movement, but given the subject matter, it arouses strong feelings (see below, including comments, for some of the reasons). Passions run high in those with direct experience or detailed knowledge of racial issues in the US. My comments are the reaction of a fairly ignorant outsider.

For a deeper, more complex, and educational (for me) way of looking at the legacy of slavery on race relations, see Octavia Butler's Kindred, review here.

IT'S ABOUT MOTHERING AND AWAKENING AS MUCH AS RACE

Although it might appear that the main relationships are between employer and help, mothering and displaced mothering is in many ways a stronger theme. It's also about other relationships, especially between women: bitchy cliques, friendships made and broken, fear versus collusion. Husbands don't generally come out of it well.

There is an awkward pact involved for white mothers: letting your children be raised by members of a race you despise versus raising the children of your oppressors. As Skeeter says, "They raise a white child and then 20 years later the child becomes the employer. It's that irony that we love them and they love us, yet we don't even allow them to use the toilet in the house". There are opportunities to sway young minds (and Aibileen tries especially hard), whilst thinking, "Baby Girl, who I know, deep down, I can't keep from turning out like her mama".

The maids' jobs and colour also have a negative effect on their own mothering. Not only do some of the white children feel the help loves them more than their own mothers; in some cases they are right, and that causes other tensions and problems. Yet firing the help is not always an option: "the help always know" all the secrets.

The three main characters are very strong women, and each gradually finds the strength to follow her conscience, despite the personal risks, to the point where Skeeter realises "I no longer feel protected because I am white". They learn, grow, awaken, and take some control over the future.

However, if I were an African-American, or raised in the deep south, I'm sure these aspects would seem much less significant in comparison to the race theme.

AUTHENTICITY?

When I read this, I had no idea how accurate any of it is (I have subsequently learned of many doubts), but in terms of individual relationships, it rings true to this Brit, especially the different voices through which the story is told.

It was also interesting that the maids were so used to "the lines", that they disliked it when they were crossed, e.g. by an employer who was too friendly: "She just don't see 'em. The Lines. Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly". Yet the maids train their own children into subjugation by teaching the rules "for working for a white lady". This has strange effects: "I don't know what to say to her. All I know is, I ain't saying it. And I know she ain't saying what she want a say either and it's a strange thing happening here cause nobody saying nothing and we still managing to have us a conversation".

On the other hand, it seems improbable that all the powerful white women in the town are only in their mid 20s. I presume that was necessary because they needed to be contemporaries of Skeeter, and she needed to be young, but it still made me question the story in broader terms.

SYMPATHIES

One expects to have strong sympathies for the maids, but a couple of the white women (including Skeeter) have a hard time (not as hard as the maids, though): material privilege, but they don't fit into either world. That creates a tension in the reader that is quite powerful.

The saddest white person is the little girl Aibileen cares for; she is a misfit in her own home, because her mother never bonded with her, "She like one a them baby chickens that get confused and follow the ducks around instead". Aibileen tries hard to compensate, particularly by repeating the mantra "You kind, you smart, you important". Mind you, she also sows the seeds future disagreement with her parents by telling secret stories about a kind alien visitor called Martian Luther King who thinks all people are the same, and by wrapping identical sweets in different coloured wrappers to make the same point. "I want to stop that moment from coming - and it comes in ever white child's life - when they start to think that coloured folks ain't as good as whites."

STEREOTYPES

Although the book fits with some stereotypes (e.g. the hideous contradiction of raising money for starving Africans whilst campaigning for outside loos in all white homes, lest the owners catch black diseases), it certainly confounds others, both in the minds of some of the characters and, to a lesser extent, to the readers (e.g. many of the maids are more educated than might be expected and Aibileen is an keen and excellent writer).

As Skeeter says, "The dichotomy of love and disdain living side by side is what surprises me", and that was the core of the book for me.

LANGUAGE, DIALECT and DIFFERENT VOICES

From the very first sentence, you are aware of Aibileen's voice and dialect, "on a early Sunday". She is an ageing maid who cares for white children when they are young, then moves on. Her own son died in an industrial accident at 24 and from then "A bitter seed was planted inside me. And I just didn't feel so accepting any more".

Is this dialect accurate, patronising appropriation, or both?

Minny is the other black voice: a maid and church friend of Aibileen's, but with a young family and violent husband. She speaks her mind, so has often been fired.

The final voice is Skeeter, the daughter of a plantation owner who has returned from college and is shocked to discover that the beloved maid who raised her has gone, and no one will tell her why.

OTHER IRRITATIONS

* My knowledge of US history is scanty and I didn't know when it was set until page 22, though even then I was only able to work it out by looking up Stevie Wonder's year of birth.

* Despite being initially vague about the date, some subsequent mentions of period detail seem rather forced, e.g. "To Kill a Mockingbird", Rosa Parks and Bob Dylan. It should have been possible to mention them in a more natural way.

* Did anyone say they needed "space" and "time" away from a relationship in Mississippi in 1963?
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Reading Progress

July 18, 2011 – Started Reading
July 18, 2011 – Shelved
July 31, 2011 – Shelved as: canada-and-usa
July 31, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-35 of 35 (35 new)

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Mark Great review Cecily of a really great book.

One of my niggles was not only how did the town get to be run by such young women but more to the point, how did the appalling Miss Hilly, a vicious bitch without a single redeeming feature, come to be the Queen B. She was horrible and unattractive and vindictive; i could not fathom how she would have risen to the top of the pile.


Cecily Thanks. I agree about the youthfulness, as you know, but horrid Hilly being queen bee is a bit less of a stretch for me: if you have the right connections, and money, it's amazing how popular and powerful you can become.


message 3: by Riku (new) - added it

Riku Sayuj Thanks for including the comment on authenticity. I had seen bits of the movie and was moved.


message 4: by Steve (new)

Steve Excellent review, Cecily -- insightful and balanced. I suspect how authentic the overall experience of the book feels goes a long way in determining our view of it. Since that's not my world either, I have no reason to disbelieve it.


Cecily That's probably true, Steve. It then raises the question of how much authenticity matters if the message gets across?


message 6: by Steve (new)

Steve You make a good point, Cecily. Often times authenticity wouldn't matter if the message speaks to some greater elemental truth like the importance of fairness or being broad-minded. Maybe it might matters more in cases where we want to interpret a specific episode of social history.


Cecily Also, the importance of authenticity will matter more to some readers than others, I suspect. For instance, with this book, it will probably be more important to African-Americans than white Europeans.


Emily Disclaimer: I found The Help a very engaging and entertaining read, but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. I really had two problems, one of them being external to The Help.

While the book features Aibileen and Minny, at the end of the day, it's really about Skeeter--check out those last few indulgent chapters about her hippie clothes shopping and the maids giving her permission to exit to NYC, which sadly is a pretty traditional way of telling a Southern story; it's always about the white folk if you poke at it at all.

Second, after I read it, I read Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, and it's like ripping off a scab on those turbulent times. It makes you realize what a deceptive ball of sunshine The Help is; it's a relatively rosy picture that does not reflect how truly ugly things really got.

I'm not arguing that every book about the South in the 60's has to be completely dreary, but clearly The Help was only scratching the surface, and in a way that makes white people feel good about the changes that have happened since. If you ask me, race relations still aren't anywhere where they need to be in the U.S. (Ferguson, MO, anyone?), so I feel uncomfortable supporting a book that mostly serves to make white people feel better about themselves. I hope that makes sense.
Add to that charges that Stockett borrowed Aibileen's story from her brother's maid Abilene. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/art...).

I've been considering dropping my ratings for months.


message 9: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Emily wrote: "Disclaimer: I found The Help a very engaging and entertaining read, but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. I really had two problems, one of them being external to The Help.."

It was great to revisit The Help via your fine review, Cecily but I have to jump in here and say that my own response to it was more or less the same as Emily's well-expressed comment #8. I was also bothered by the risks Skeeter took in her pursuit of a story, risks that were far greater for Aibileen, etc., than for herself.


message 10: by Cecily (last edited Aug 29, 2014 09:44AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Emily and Fionnula, thanks for your comments. I think there is much merit is what you say (especially the bit about relative risks), and as a white and relatively privileged Brit, born after the events in the story, my ability to relate to it is tenuous. Perhaps that's why the non-racial themes seemed so strong to me?

The UK is no panacea of racial harmony, but our situation is very different from that in the US: there is more racial mixing (geographically and in terms of families), there has not been slavery or legal segregation on our own shores in more than 150 years, we don't have separate educational institutions (there are still universities just for African-Americans, aren't there?), and poverty is not as divided along racial lines as it appears to be in some of the US.

All that leaves me conflicted: in some ways, I almost feel I have no right to comment on the book at all, but in another way, perhaps the views of an outsider shine a different light? If nothing else, discussing it, even two years after I read it, has been more educational and thought-provoking than the book itself.


message 11: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Cecily wrote: "....If nothing else, discussing it, even two years after I read it, has been more educational and thought-provoking than the book itself."

Agree! Comment threads are a great idea - particularly when they are as interesting as this one - definitely one of my favourite things about gr.


message 12: by Caroline (last edited Aug 29, 2014 11:51AM) (new) - added it

Caroline Thank you for a great review, and I agree, the follow on comments were an excellent discussion too. Like you (a fellow Briton), I read these things from a position of ignorance.


message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Thank you for enticing me with your excellent review. You tempt me to at least watch the film, which I had avoided for reasons I don't quite understand. Thank you for your insight that this work is about mothering and awakening in addition to race.


message 14: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Cecily wrote: "... (there are still universities just for African-Americans, aren't there?) ..."

They are referred to as HBCUs now -- historically black colleges and universities. Their enrollments were never restricted by race (though of course the schools were originally established because blacks were not allowed to attend the "white schools") and nowadays student bodies are very mixed -- some even have non-black majorities.


message 15: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Buckley Your review is splendid. What emerges from your review is the sense of how racial and ethnic segregation and discrimination damages the humanity of those caught up in it.

I happen to live in Northern Ireland where there is notoriously massive segregation between two (in our case religiously defined) ethnic groups. Here, and unlike the Deep South of the 1960s, the difference between the groups is no longer one of class, since the class structure is now much the same on each side. Also, nowadays, the two sides are equally represented in local government. But we still have segregated residential areas, segregated schools, segregated churches and there is very little intermarriage across the divide, so there is little intermingling within families.

What has always struck me, when talking to people about the issues this situation generates is the lack of empathy, understanding or even mere knowledge of how people on the other side think and feel. This is reinforced by a pervasive unwillingness to discuss or to try to understand the other's point of view. In consequence, people do tend to look at each other across the divide with blank incomprehension. Our situation is not the same as the one described here, but there are strong resonances. I find the whole thing very very sad.


message 16: by Cecily (last edited Sep 01, 2014 09:27AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily sckenda wrote: "Thank you for your insight that this work is about mothering and awakening in addition to race."

Thanks, Steve. Although I think those are important themes, I think it's likely that those more familiar with US racial politics will see the emphasis differently. On the other hand, if you approach it, looking for multiple themes, you are probably more likely to see them.


message 17: by Cecily (last edited Sep 01, 2014 09:27AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Teresa wrote: "They are referred to as HBCUs... and nowadays student bodies are very mixed."

Thanks, Teresa. Evidently I've been misled by vague impressions from TV programmes I don't even watch.


Cecily Anthony, I'd never really thought of the situation in Northern Ireland in the same light, perhaps because there isn't a visible difference between people of the two groups. Nevertheless, the comparison sheds a slightly different light on both.


Emily Cecily wrote: All that leaves me conflicted: in some ways, I almost feel I have no right to comment on the book at all, but in another way, perhaps the views of an outsider shine a different light? If nothing else, discussing it, even two years after I read it, has been more educational and thought-provoking than the book itself.

I think it's facsinating to be able to read how it felt to someone on the outside of the issue. I grew up Southernish (North Texas), but I was raised by shockingly (for their generation and location) non-racist grandparents. My sister tells me it was because my grandfather did field work alongside all kinds of people during the Depression, and that they were all working as hard as they could toward a common goal--not starving to death, so he could never see how he was any better than any of them. Whatever the reason, I grew up with that attitude, and I'm very grateful. Racism in the U.S. can be absolutely insidious and go completely unacknowledged. My husband's administrative assistant is a young black male, 26, and he's pulled over by the police on a regular basis, basically for breathing--driving too fast, driving to slow, signaling too late, signaling too early, you get the idea, there's always a reason to stop him, simply for driving home from work. The absolute worst time, they cuffed him in front of his six-year-daughter for literally no reason (the cop claimed he could smell marijuana, which wasn't located since it didn't exist). I can't imagine how confused and scared she was, and the only crime he'd committed was being the wrong color in a rather closed-mined town.

I think it's impossible for me to see this book outside the prism of race relations. It still too raw a topic. I consider The Help a lovely story, but it's much of a big a chunk of fantasy as say Gone with the Wind, which I love but not for the cringe-worthy race portions. ;)


message 20: by Cecily (last edited Sep 03, 2014 09:48AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Thanks for the reassurance, Emily. I've seen nasty fights break out over this book (not only on GR), so it's good to know that an outsider's view is not necessarily irrelevant to those more in the know.

I'm glad you had such enlightened upbringing, even though it sounds as if there's still a way to go in general.


message 21: by Apatt (last edited Sep 02, 2014 11:33AM) (new)

Apatt Brilliant review Cecily!
I saw the Emma Stone movie adaptation last year, not really memorable (12 Years a Slave is better, Roots is the best). I don't if I will read the book but I'm glad I read the review!

"Did anyone say they needed "space" and "time" away from a relationship in Mississippi in 1963?"
Sounds like something Peter Capaldi might say...


Cecily Apatt wrote: "Brilliant review Cecily!
I saw the Emma Stone movie adaptation last year, not really memorable (12 Years a Slave is better, Roots is the best)."


Yes, I saw the film (having read the book first). I have no strong memories of it, so I guess it was unremarkably adequate and, as you say, not as good as 12 Years a Slave.

Apatt wrote: Sounds like something Peter Capaldi might say."

I think the Doctor and the Beeb would have to tread VERY carefully before venturing into the US Civil Rights movement!


message 23: by Apatt (new)

Apatt Cecily wrote: "Apatt wrote: "Brilliant review Cecily!
I saw the Emma Stone movie adaptation last year, not really memorable (12 Years a Slave is better, Roots is the best)."

Yes, I saw the film (having read the ..."


Were you a fan of Roots? Kunta Kinte and all that, I love that mini-series!


message 24: by Cecily (last edited Sep 03, 2014 09:22AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Gah: you spotted that I failed to mention Roots. Nope. Never seen it; never read it. Please don't unfriend me. ;)


message 25: by Sue (new)

Sue This is a great discussion. I have pretty much decided not to read this book. Too many others that I feel have higher priority for me and so many things I've read and heard about it just put me off. I did read the Warmth of Other Suns. That was an amazing and educational book.

I've always lived in the north, in Massachusetts, where we have had our own race issues. It's not just the South....it's that old de facto vs de jure thing. All of us in the US need to think about this regularly as far as I'm concerned. Otherwise we can become complacent with our own perceived goodness, others' perceived problems. Sometimes even good people have the problem of looking away from evil or evil acts. It's not always easy to take a stand that is truly right.

Wow...I've become a bit preachy in the middle of your book thread. Oops.


Cecily Only a little bit preachy, and that's fine by me: it adds to the discussion.


Petra CigareX Great review.


Cecily Thanks, Petra. As a white Brit, I feel a bit presumptuous in some of my thoughts, but I can only review as me.


message 29: by Councillor (new) - added it

Councillor Great review, Cecily! I recently purchased a wonderful copy of this book and hope to read it soon.


Cecily Councillor wrote: "Great review, Cecily! I recently purchased a wonderful copy of this book and hope to read it soon."

And I hope you enjoy it. Thanks, Councillor.


message 31: by Ted (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ted I liked this book a lot too, Cecily. Wonderful review.


Cecily Ted wrote: "I liked this book a lot too, Cecily. Wonderful review."

So I saw and see again. "Fun", you said!

Thanks, Ted.


Ivana Books Are Magic The plot did have its weakness and the ending was way too convenient...there was a lot of repetition and the book could have been at least 100 pages shorter...but I loved it! The characters felt so real and genuine and that's what had me hooked...

P.S. You're right! Probably nobody said they need space and time back in 1963. I think phrase comes from the eighties or nineties.


Cecily Ivana wrote: "The plot did have its weakness and the ending was way too convenient..."

Thanks for your comment, Ivana, and you won't be surprised that I agree. I also enjoyed reading your very comprehensive and insightful review.


Cecily xavier wrote: "hey how do i review a book? whenever i try they always get deleted."

If you manage to write one, but they subsequently get deleted, I suggest you contact support@nm4v.us


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