The Help

On February 16, 2010 by Eden M. Kennedy

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

This is a lovely book about a subject that kind of floats like an iceberg as you’re coming toward it. On the surface you see the fresh-faced young wives of Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, but just below the surface a massive chunk of civil rights is waiting to puncture…the hull of white comfort?

On one side of the story we have a circle of white girlfriends who’ve known each other forever. They’re all in their early twenties, all married with children except for one ugly duckling who graduated without her MRS degree, Skeeter Phelan. Skeeter loves her friends and playing bridge and editing the Junior League newsletter, but she’s restless. She wants to Write. A New York editor responds to Skeeter’s resume, telling her to find a subject she cares about, something close to her heart. Skeeter takes a hard look around her and finds the first thread of her story: Constantine, the black maid who raised her and who was probably the person she loved most in the world until Skeeter’s mother fired her without explaining why.

Since her mother won’t talk about Constantine, Skeeter slowly begins to approach Constantine’s peers, who also happen to work as maids for all of Skeeter’s friends, to see if they’ll give her any information. They won’t talk to her, of course, at first, but Skeeter’s slow but steady efforts to earn the trust of one maid in particular, Aibileen, form the hub of the novel.

The author concentrates mostly on the emotional core of the story, dropping in historical details (Vietnam, Medgar Evers’ murder) for little shocks of context.

Honestly, this was the first page-turner I’ve read in a long time. Emotionally it rang really true to me. It was also somewhat horrifying to realize that the precautions Skeeter and Aibileen take to meet in secret and work on the maids’ stories make it sound like they’re living in Nazi Germany; the consequences of their “race betrayal” could truly result in both of them ending up beaten, shunned, in hiding, or dead.

I’ve read some criticism about the author using dialect for the black characters and perfect, unaccented English for the white characters, and I suppose that’s a valid complaint. That said, I found the black dialect didn’t take much effort to read, and I just assumed the white characters had Southern accents, so…?

The point being, I liked this book. Should I give it a rating? Okay, I give this book four cantaloupes for being tough on the outside, sweet on the inside, and a healthy part of a nutritious breakfast.

Comments

comments

32 Responses to “The Help”

  • i saw someone reading this on the subway yesterday and wondered what it was about. thanks for the synopsis!

  • I read it this month as part of the "Book Lushes" online book club that Jonna and Jennie started. I enjoyed it quite a bit and had a hard time putting it down.

  • I also read it this month for The Book Lushes. It was such a great book, I couldn't put it down!

  • I was told to get an audio book for this – brilliant advice! Loved the book, and loved hearing it with the different and distinct voices.

  • I absolutely agree with your review. It was a page turner and I couldn't put it down. I really loved the story and the way that the book was written.

  • Thank you for the book review. I will read it.

  • This definitely sounds interesting – I saw this book recently but didn't know much about it.

    I wonder if I can finish by the time my bookclub meets on Sunday…sounds like a great suggestion for next month :)

  • I agree…fantastic book. I second the recommendation for the audio book, it was wonderful.

  • I thought it was great, too. And the language was appropriate.

    Generally, wealthy and upper middle class Southerners just speak in an accent. In other words, they pronounce their words differently from Northerners, but use standard vocabulary and grammar (aside from "y'all). Working class and poor Southerners, on the other hand, tend to speak with not only an accent but also regional constructions that constitute a true dialect in terms of word choice and usage.

    This isn't the best example, but it's what immediately comes to mind: if someone were to write a book about my sister in law, who is a white woman from the rural south, it would be flat out wrong for her to ever portray her as saying, "I'm not sure what I saw." It should be, "I'm not sure what I seen." That's how she speaks, period. On the other hand, the finishing-school graduate at my church whose family tree reads like a street map of our Southern city would always use the first sentence. Her vowels would positively purr in a way that happens nowhere else in the US, but her grammar would be standard.

  • Perfect, Loonytick, thank you for that.

  • I read this book a few months ago and was really impressed, especially considering this is Stockett's first novel.
    One of my favorite aspects of the novel is the parallel between Skeeter and Mae Mobley. The influences that their nannies had on their characters and self image were very similar. I think Mae Mobley would be her generation's Skeeter.
    It really made me think about how many unexpected people shape who you turn out to be.

  • This has been on my "list" for several months. After reading this review I'm moving it to the top! Thanks….

  • I've been looking for something good to read. This book sounded perfect, so I checked the catalog of the library I work for to see if we own it. We have a couple of copies, only one was available for check-out. Not any more, 'cause right now I have it in my hot little hands. Mwahahaha.

    The woman who checked it out to me says its been circulating quite a bit. I guess that means I have about two weeks before I get an email requesting me to bring it back. Somehow, I don't think I'll need the two weeks.

  • Great synopsis. I really liked this book and was astounded at my own ignorance. Or at least, at the bubble in which I live. The danger of the time wasn't something I ever contemplated.

    I, too, heard some criticism of the dialects. I disagree with it. Stockett did an excellent job handling the black/white differences of the time.

    This was a ballsy first novel. Writing, in a first-person voice, as two black women was damn gutsy. She pulled it off, and did so with intelligence and respect.

    Read more books, Mrs. Kennedy! This is fun! I'm reading "The Piano Teacher". You should pick it up. It's a page-turner. Or "Shanghai Girls"? What's next??

  • I loved this book and was equally horrified at what had to be done to ensure the women participating in the book were not damaged. I knew it was bad but didn't realize the lack of power and control over their lives. I read it in two long sessions…couldn't put it down.
    The Piano Teacher was interesting as well.

  • I do most of my "reading" in the car via audio book, during my work commute. I listened to this book also, and found that all the narrators, but especially Skeeter's voice added an extra layer of realism to the story (Jenna Lamia, who also narrated "The Secret Life of Bees" – another great story). I grew up in the sixties, and this book brought back long-forgotten memories of all of the true events in this book. We too had a maid, and I used to ride downtown on the bus with her to go shopping. Of course we rode in the back of the bus, and ate at the "colored" lunch counters. I remember questioning why we had to do all that – I guess I had never noticed any of it until I saw it from her perspective. Thanks so much for your review – glad you liked it as much as I did!

  • Forgot to add a recommendation for one that I, having grown up in the south, and a bit later than this time frame, was clueless about – "The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet", a romantic tale about the Japanese internment camps during WWI in the forties. Another eye-opener!

  • I just got back from book club where we discussed this book. I loved it. Everyone loved it. I started reading it yesterday and read through the night – unable to put it down. The characters are all so vivid, and the internal tension, wondering if they would get caught and what would happen – ayieeeee.

    A truly great novel and a WONDERFUL book club book – there were so many things to talk about – book club lasted for three hours tonight. Two thumbs up.

  • Oh – I listened to this book on audio. it's one of my favorites. I highly highly recommend the audio version – it really brings the characters to life (even more than in print.) (Another good audio book is Water for Elepants – another one that I love.)

  • Oh how I loved this book! It was recommended to me by my Jewish southern-belle MIL who grew up in Jackson during this exact time (and yes, they had "help" with a seperate bathroom and all). She says it was spot-on in every way. I couldn't put it down.

    Such a brilliant first novel.

  • This book was not only fantastic, it was also fantastically true in many senses. I grew up in North Carolina with "help" – not live-in, but our wonderful "second mama" Lula was there when we woke and didn't leave until after dinner. Her mother was a domestic worker and so she learned from her. She also worked for my grandparents, where she had a separate bathroom and used it until she retired in 2001.

    She is family to us, and we celebrate birthdays and holidays with her. We love her like she's part of the family, and she always will be. It always bothered me that she ate separately from us, and had the separate bathroom, but she didn't make a fuss about it and so we children didn't either.

    To me, this book gives so much insight into a world with which many people aren't familiar.

  • This book was not only fantastic, it was also fantastically true in many senses. I grew up in North Carolina with "help" – not live-in, but our wonderful "second mama" Lula was there when we woke and didn't leave until after dinner. Her mother was a domestic worker and so she learned from her. She also worked for my grandparents, where she had a separate bathroom and used it until she retired in 2001.

    She is family to us, and we celebrate birthdays and holidays with her. We love her like she's part of the family, and she always will be. It always bothered me that she ate separately from us, and had the separate bathroom, but she didn't make a fuss about it and so we children didn't either.

    To me, this book gives so much insight into a world with which many people aren't familiar.

  • Way to phone it in!

    It was interesting to hear us all talking about the south in the 1960s and then draw parallels with the fact that everyone (but me) had Spanish speaking cleaners/nannies in their employ. I know things are hugely different these days, but there were more than a few uncomfortable comparisons for some….

  • I was absorbed by this book, and missed it after I finished…

  • I grew up with Yankee parents in the very deep South and this book rang so true for me, Eden. So glad you reviewed it. I agree with someone else's comment about Mae Mobley and Skeeter's parallel.

    Also, who doesn't love a good poop story woven into a narrative?

  • We just read this for my book club. I loved it so much. I wish all of our book club selections were like this. It had plenty o substance, but read like a long chat with a close friend.

  • That perfect grammar didn't do much to disguise the ignorance of many of the so-called "refined" characters. Those women made my blood boil. I so wanted to get on the train with Skeeter and see how she got along in the big city! I miss that book too, I get really excited to loan it out.

  • Thanks. I have been starting to read fiction again and have been looking for something gripping but not lame to read.

    This sounds like the book.

    It's worth thinking about what it means for history instruction in America that most people do not realize that the South was a police state under Jim Crow and that people who were not compliant with the regime of horrific repression lived in absolute terror. It was a reign of terror and violence.

    This is an interesting non-fiction book about Jim Crow.

    http://www.booksamillion.com/product/9780195146905

  • Writing well about writing well!

  • I also read “The Help” and liked it a lot. I’m from the South and grew up on my mother’s stories of being raised by “Stella” who walked to work for her family from the wrong side of the tracks (literally) each day of her life. She taught my mama how to cook and the stories I inhaled about her as a little girl are still part of the fabric of my being. The saddest thing of all to me was how she wanted a red bathrobe more than anything in the world, and my grandmother sewed one for her, and was saving it to give her for Christmas. Only she died without ever receiving it. Just thinking about that would make me tear up as a child!

  • I just finished it, and absolutely loved it. (I can’t remember the last time I read a book in less than a month. I’ve been terrible.) Is it corny that I’m hoping Stockett’s next book somehow includes Skeeter? Probably.

  • I loved this book.

    The End.