The Help by Kathryn Stockett

thehelp

Reading books on the bestseller lists is not something I habitually do, as you know. If I do dabble in such lowbrow reading material, I only do so at least a year after the initial hype has subsided to prevent the impression being given to others that I jump on literary bandwagons. The Help became big news when the film came out last year. I was living in New York at the time, and remember reading about it in every publication I came across. In Barnes and Noble they had massive displays of the book, and every other person on the subway was clutching a copy. As I am not a snob about films in any way, shape or form (one of my most shame inducing favourites is The Mummy Returns – which is genuinely amazing, by the way), I had no problem with watching the film on opening night, and loved every minute of it. I thought the characters were wonderful, and the exploration of racism, prejudice and courage sensitive and thought provoking. I still didn’t feel that bothered about reading the book, though. It was only when I started teaching To Kill a Mockingbird that I remembered it, and thought it would probably be a useful point of comparison for my students, many of whom have seen the film and would be able to relate the setting to the time in which Harper Lee was writing. As such, I picked it up last week, little expecting that I’d find myself sitting up until the early hours for several nights, unable to put it down. I have to admit – it’s very good!

The story is told from the point of view of three inhabitants of 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. Aibileen and Minny are black maids, working as cooks, cleaners and nannies on barely minimum wage for white middle class women. Skeeter is a jobless twentysomething graduate, back living on her parents’ cotton plantation just outside of the city and desperate to break into journalism. When she hits on the idea of compiling a book of oral stories from maids telling of the realities of working for white women, she has no idea what a can of worms she will open. Her friends, notably the society hostess Hilly Holbrook, and her faithful sidekick Elizabeth Leefolt, will turn against her, horrified at her rejection of the morals of polite society and support of the Civil Rights movement. As racially motivated violence increases in the run up to the March on Washington, Minny and Aibileen are terrified of being found out and punished for their involvement with Skeeter. It is a risky business, attempting to expose the evils of a world that doesn’t understand that it is wrong. While Skeeter’s initial motivation is less humanitarian and more self promotion, the more she has her eyes opened to the experiences of the maids she talks to, the more she realises that she has to make a stand and fight to ensure these women’s voices are heard.

What’s interesting and unexpected about The Help is that, unlike the film’s rather simplistic narrative, the book is not just about race. Instead it is an intriguing, wide ranging look at life in the South during the 1960s, from bridge parties and church services to lynchings and post natal depression. In many ways, it is just as much about the oppression of women as it is about racism; this was the era of The Feminine Mystique, after all.  The suffering of women in Jackson is colour blind. Minny is beaten by her husband physically, while Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth is emotionally bullied by hers on a daily basis. Lou Ann, another of Skeeter’s friends, hides the signs of her depression at being stuck in a house with small children all day under long sleeves, while Hilly Holbrook’s outlet for her frustration at her wasted talents is in bullying mercilessly the other women of Jackson into supporting her bid for social supremacy. Aibileen’s grief at losing her son to a racist mob is no less than Minny’s employer Celia’s grief at miscarrying five babies and being unable to have any more. Skeeter’s book doesn’t just give Aibileen and Minny and their friends a passport to freedom, it gives her one too. It means she can get out of Jackson, away from the limited roles women were expected to perform, and pursue her dreams of a career in a big city. The world is starting to open up and prejudices of all natures are beginning to be challenged, and by the end of the novel, it is clear that change is coming for everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin.

The Help is thoughtfully and skillfully written, managing to capture authentically the voices of three very different women and their experiences. While it could have become a trite and simplistic dichotomy of white v black, it is actually a far more complex and intelligent exploration of the many types of oppression and prejudice we live under, and raises plenty of questions about our assumptions and attitudes as a society. I wonder why everyone who reads the novel seizes on the characters’ race rather than their gender; it is primarily a female book, after all, telling women’s stories; take race out of the equation and you would still have a fascinating portrayal of women’s roles in 1960’s America and how limited they were. Minny and Aibileen can only get work as maids; Skeeter can only get work writing about maids. None are doing what they truly want to; no woman in the novel is truly happy. In its essence, I think that The Help is about fighting for your own personal freedom; about having the courage to stand up for yourself and for your convictions, and being strong enough to do whatever it takes to find your own happiness in life. It’s very American in that sense, but sometimes I like a bit of American cheese to warm my heart! It educated and inspired me, as well as entertained me, which certainly makes it a cut above the average bestseller. I highly recommend it, and if you need any more encouragement, my students loved it too!

36 comments

  1. I love The Help. I did not see the movie. When I really love a book, I am often disappointed with the movie so I often avoid them.
    I was ten years old in 1960 and grew up in the Midwest. I was not brought up in a family that had maids or even housekeepers, but I remember how prejudiced some people were. My parents made our neighbors angry for refusing to sign a petition to keep a black family from moving to our neighborhood. Watching the racial turmoil in the South just confused me as a teenager. I didn’t understand why people would be so angry that a few “colored” kids were going to their school. (At that time, in my area, “colored” was the polite word.) We had areas of our town which were more segregated than they are now, but we didn’t think about it too much. The Help gave me some insight to what was going on in other parts of the country during my youth.

    1. The movie is a nice, feel good film but it lacks the depth of the film. It’s always really interesting to hear about people’s experiences at that time. It never ceases to amaze me that some people still hold such extreme views today.

  2. I really enjoyed your comments above about your bestseller reading habits; I can certainly identify, as I feel very much the same! This year I’ve been really pushing myself to read some of the new stuff as it comes out (and my library is a great help – there is a very large, very prominent display of new and recent releases just at the top of the stairs, so you get a good long view as you toil upwards – the librarians laughingly refer to it as the “Power Wall”) and while some of those I’ve been tempted with leave me unimpressed, a few have been wonderful. Though of course they would therefore carry their wonderfulness forward in time, so there’s no real rush to read, is there?😉

    I have not seen the movie version of The Help, but I did pick up the book as a rather desperate reading choice one day when I was in a hurry to get to a place where I was going to have to wait for several hours; I had forgotten to bring along a book, so I quickly dashed into a drugstore hoping to find something decent on the “Recent Releases” book rack. The Help seemed the best of a rather sorry collection dominated equally by bodice-ripper covers and Oprah-stickered Big Deep Depressing but Very Important Books.

    I enjoyed it in a mild way, but it felt very predictable, and the further along I read, the more my predictions proved correct. As a “race relations” book there were really no surprises. But now, reading your review, the penny has dropped – you are right – it is very much a book about women’s roles and entrapment in gender-biased society, regardless of race. I am happier about that interpretation than I was with the race-bias one.

    I ultimately did not finish reading this one, though I may take another run at it now that you’ve given me more to mull over. Good review; thank you.

    1. I love that ‘power wall’! I do need to be more open minded about modern novels – so many of them turn out to be brilliant when I read them ten years after publication!😉

      I see what you mean about the race relations in the book, though to be honest, I find it hard to see how anyone, regardless of their own race, could write a book about racial issues without offending someone. It’s hard ground to be on and I think Stockett dealt with it well, without treading too far down the line of stereotype.

      Glad my review has given you something else to think about – do give the book another go and see what you think on a second reading!

  3. This is Serendipity at work here, like you I didn’t rush out to get a copy of this book when it was being publicized so heavily. I picked up a copy secondhand in a charity shop recently. I was really gripped by the unfolding of the story, it’s a keeper for me. Usually charity shop purchases get read and then donated to another charity shop as space on my book shelves is limited.
    I grew up in an English town with a large non white, immigrant population, not much mixing between the different cultures. I’m guessing that the majority of these 1st generation immigrants did menial jobs, working on building sites, and in factories, etc, don’t think there was ever much in the line of domestic help then or now in this town. So for me it was a picture of how the other half lives on both sides of the divide.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading The Help too, Geraldine! Like you I have very little experience of the issues raised in the book and I found it an eye opener to a totally different time and culture.

  4. Hi Rachel
    I read The Help when it first came out, before seeing the film. It’s a work that stays with you. It makes you laugh, cry, protest. A great read and a slice of social history too. Thoroughly recommended and, as always, you write a great review

  5. I read the book earlier this year and wasn’t expecting much, but like you I was completely enthralled. I saw the film afterwards and though I could see that someone might enjoy it a lot if they hadn’t read the book, it missed so much of the subtlety of the written version that I found it quite disappointing. Of course you are right that it’s about women’s lives, but race looms pretty high here too, and I found that aspect of it terribly upsetting in places. Glad your pupils appreciated it — good choice!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it too, Harriet – having watched the film quite some time ago I can’t make too many direct comparisons but from memory I do think it does the complexity and the subtlety of the book a disservice. I found it upsetting too – I am having to read so much about this period at the moment and it really does make me feel so sad to think of the horrific injustice black people had to suffer through. The cruelty never ceases to amaze me.

  6. I read “The Help” when it first came out. Being from the South of the US, Tennessee not Mississippi, it spoke to me. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and then saw the movie which stayed mostly true. Having grown up in the 60’s, I was witness to a lot and this book brought it all back to me.

    1. It’s really interesting to hear from people who grew up in the South during this period. Everything I’ve read seems to suggest the book presents an authentic account of the realities of life and I’m glad it rang true for you. I’m sure it often made uncomfortable reading but I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  7. I adored the book and the movie–in fact, both were added to my respective libraries as keepers. I think your review of the book is spot on. I read an article about Stockett around the time the book was released (so quite awhile ago). I can’t remember the exact numbers but her manuscript for this novel was rejected so. many. times (over 40?). by publishers. She revised and revised to the point where there became a strain on her marriage, her life. But her persistence paid off…so it seems.

  8. I am the other end of the spectrum, I read the book long before it got made into the film and was very new out on the shelves. I loved it and said at the time, it was a book everyone should read to gain a little understanding in what went on at that time.

    Your comment about lowbrow reading made me smile, try some others you may surprise yourself!

    1. I agree Jo – I think for beginners in this period of history, it’s a fantastic and accessible piece of social history.

      I know, I know…I need to be open minded!

  9. Oh dear I hated the book – predictable with corny characters. I seem to be in the minority. The film was on our television and I tried to watch that too. For the first time since blogging with you I have a negative comment.but I still am enthralled by your blog.

    1. Oh no, Enid! I don’t like disagreeing with you!😦 I think it’s definitely a certain taste and I can see how some people would find it quite predictable. It just hit the spot for me. I’m sorry it didn’t for you!

  10. I hate to be a wet blanket, but I did not like The Help at all. My problem with it (and To Kill A Mockingbird, for that matter) is that blacks are relegated to the position of symbols who reveal the true nature of white characters. I can almost forgive TKAM for that approach, since it was written in the pre-Civil Rights era, but for a young woman today writing a book like The Help, where a young white woman is the person who reveals the oppression of blacks shows a cluelessness beyond belief. There is also no way a black domestic servant in the 1960s would have confided in the white daughter if her employers any negative information about her life or living conditions. As with TKIM, the only way to see some of the white characters as good and honorable is to buy into the racial dynamics of the era…and I just can’t do that.

    1. Deb, I see where you’re coming from, and I did read articles that expressed the same thoughts as yours before I wrote my review. I thought about them and whether I could agree, but I really don’t think I do – I never got the impression that Skeeter ‘revealed’ the oppression of the black characters – their oppression is obvious throughout. Everyone knows how they are treated and it’s not as if they’re not doing anything about it – the Civil Rights movement is in full swing in the background of the novel’s events. The black characters are never portrayed as helpless – they use Skeeter’s book for their own ends – she only wants to write it because she thinks it’s a good enough idea to get her a book deal, and without them taking part, she’d have nothing. She doesn’t do it to reveal their oppression – she does it merely to tell their stories. They decide to use it as a vehicle for that. I don’t think Skeeter ever really had a massive Civil Rights agenda. I see what you’re saying about us seeing white as good in relation to their treatment of black people, but again, I think TKAM and The Help are both more subtle than that. Skeeter is not portrayed as a good person because she fights for equality – she doesn’t, not really. She never really makes a stand or paints her colours to the mast – she publishes the book anonymously and she never properly challenges her friends. And in TKAM, Atticus isn’t only a good person because he fights for Tom Robinson’s freedom. He’s a good person because he acts by his conscience. To say he is only a good person because of the way he treats black people would be to unfairly simplify Harper Lee’s portrayal of him into a stock stereotype, which I can’t agree he is. I absolutely see why many people find novels of this type uncomfortable, and I completely see where you’re coming from, but I think it’s quite limiting to see novels of this type as buying into racial dynamics just because they show white people who challenge racism…that’s if I’ve understood your argument correctly?!😉

  11. I’d pondered buying this in Waterstones. Like you I’m very selective about what contemporary titles I read but your review has convinced me to give it a go!

  12. Oh! Now I don’t know which way to go with this!

    I think Deb’s comments are closer to my own thoughts – I never liked the tone of To Kill a Mockingbird (the book) and the film really piled it on.

    There is a group of books which deal more or less successfully with this question. Perhaps the best are written by black people themselves.

    1. I can see how many people find books of this nature uncomfortable, Chrissy, and I understand that. I don’t really know how I feel – just that I think sometimes our constant striving towards political correctness can stop us from appreciating what authors are trying to do when it comes to writing about race. I don’t think it’s necessarily always fair to say a white person can’t contribute legitimately to the debate…

  13. I agree that Katherine Stockett is a good storyteller, and this is an interesting and unusual subject, although I disliked the chocolate pie incident. However, I also felt it was a bit politically correct – all the black women were good, intelligent, and articulate, and most of the whites were nasty and prejudiced, so I also think this may have been a better novel if it had been written by a black woman. It did, however, show up the appaling unfairness of the race laws that existed at that time.

    1. I loved the chocolate pie incident! I believed it was just the sort of thing Minny would do! Well I can see your point…but I’m not entirely sure I agree. I thought Stockett did a good job of creating three dimensional characters and I think she actually did well at avoiding stereotype. It’s such a difficult arena to write in and I don’t necessarily always think it’s right to say that only people of certain races or genders can authentically write about certain experiences – that implies that all people of a certain race or gender have had exactly the same experiences and can speak for one another…and I’m sure if a black person had written The Help, there would be plenty of people saying that her account wasn’t right either!

  14. Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful review. I enjoyed the book very much,and I think you’re spot on about it being a book about restrictions on all women’s lives, black and white.

    I did think it was interesting that you called bestsellers ‘lowbrow’. All kinds of books become bestsellers – it’s sometimes quite fascinating to look back and see what books were bestsellers and when, as it often tells you a lot about the society at the time. Do you think bestsellers are usually ‘lowbrow’ novels, or does becoming a bestseller make a novel lowbrow?

    1. Thanks Erica, glad you enjoyed it!

      I suppose in my opinion the majority of bestsellers are lowbrow in the sense that they are written primarily for escapist entertainment and aren’t exactly full of literary merit. Literary fiction rarely tends to top the bestseller lists – even Booker Prize winning novels barely make it into the top ten most years. I don’t think becoming a bestseller MAKES a novel lowbrow, I just think many bestsellers these days ARE lowbrow because that it what the majority of the public seems to want to read. Look at Fifty Shades of Grey as an example…whenever I go into Tescos and see their top ten book chart, it’s full of fluffy chick lit, crime novels and Mills and Boon knock offs…but if that’s what most people like, then that’s what most people like! But I would call them lowbrow as the quality of the writing and general sophistication of the plot tends to be poor and they are definitely not the types of books that will endure! Does that make sense?

      1. Yes, that does make sense, and I know exactly what you mean about the books in Tesco! But a fair amount of literary fiction does make it into the bestseller charts – see this article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/aug/09/best-selling-books-all-time-fifty-shades-grey-compare
        There’s Ian McEwan, Khaled Hosseini, Yann Martel. I think quite a few of these books will endure – though of course literary quality is not always the best indicator of what endures! A lot of it is fashion, and luck. I wonder if a fair few of these became bestsellers through the influence of the now defunct Richard and Judy book club? Perhaps literary fiction is less likely to become a bestseller now?

  15. I read your review the other day, Rachel, and have just now had time to comment. Sorry for the delay. I was anxious to know your thoughts on “The Help” and fascinated by them, and by the comments. Our book group read and discussed this – and it was quite a spirited discussion at that!

    I grew up in this era, though not in the South but the Midwest, in the suburbs of Chicago. While we didn’t have the blatant segregation issues of the south, we did have issues here as well.

    I loved “The Help”, and, actually, liked the movie more than I thought I would. I found that the movie captured the voices of the characters as i heard them while reading the book. (I read the book first.) It is interesting to hear your perspective from across the Atlantic as well as across the generations that separate us. I love that! Your insight of how the book is not just about racial issues, but women’s issues as well is spot on, Rachel. The 50’s were a time of tremendous change; for people of color, for women, even for children. Now, there I go, rambling again.

    I’m so glad you bite into a little American cheese now and then, and am smiling at that comment right now.

    1. I’m glad you had a spirited discussion in your book group, Penny – I’d have loved to have a group of adults to discuss this with!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the book and could relate it to your experiences growing up – I find it fascinating to read about this era because it is so different to the era in which I grew up and I can’t imagine a life where these attitudes and lifestyles were normal.

      Ha! I love American Cheese – I think us stone cold Brits could do with a little more of it in our lives!

  16. Im reading this is English and finding it really interesting. Although I find it a little confusing when they change perspectives I think Kathryn Stockett put a lot of depth into the book and made it interesting for my class and I to develop on our knowledge about Mississippi and America in 1950-1960’s🙂

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