Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: The Help


The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a novel set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s as the Civil Rights movement in America was picking up steam.  It revolves around the narrative of three women:  Skeeter, a recent Ole Miss grad who is too tall, awkward and different to fit into her social circle; Minny, a tell-it-like-it-is black maid with an abusive husband; and Aibileen, another black maid who has raised seventeen white children, while her own son was killed in a work-related accident.

After her best friend Hilly tells Skeeter to put an announcement in their Junior League newsletter about why white families should install separate, outdoor toilets for their hired black help, Skeeter realizes her place in the world is not where she wants it to be.  She approaches Aibileen about putting together a book of interviews, in which the black maids tell everything- the good, the bad, and the ugly- about what it's like working for white women in Jackson, Mississippi.  Aibileen hesitates, but then comes to the realization that this is her chance to make an impact, to change the way her former charges think of her.  "...my jaw so tight I could break my teeth off.  I feel that bitter seed growing inside a me, the one planted after Treelore died.  I want to yell so loud that Baby Girl can hear me that dirty ain't a color, disease ain't the Negro side of town.  I want to stop that moment from coming- and it come in ever white child's life- when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites."

Aibileen recruits Minny, and the three are off, taking great risks to bring change to their world.  The novel explores all these relationships- between blacks and whites, employer and hired help, friends growing apart, men and women, parent and child and so many more in a respectful and beautiful way that left me spellbound.

I don't know what I can say about this book that hasn't already been said.  Sometimes books do not live up to their hype; they fail to meet expectations or fall flat or just don't click.  This book was on so many "Best of 2009" lists that I got the feeling I was the last person left in blogosphere that hadn't read it.  Luckily for me, my boss gave me her copy to borrow and I ate it up in only a few short days.  I loved this book.  It is written with so much empathy to all the characters involved and truly brings Jackson to life.  Yes, there was deep-seeded racism in Jackson in the 60s, but there were also many people uncomfortable with the way things were, and people who leaned more to civil rights but were afraid of the consequences of acting.  The Help brought all that to light for me.  I feel silly, but I guess I never thought about it before, how big a risk a white person in Mississippi was taking to side with blacks on issues.  And how lonely and isolating that must have been.  Skeeter came to life for me because of that, but she also made it clear just how clueless white people were about blacks at the time. 

I know that Skeeter worried about the maids she was talking to and the dangers they faced in speaking with her, but she only says at the very end of the book (meaning, the end of The Help, not at the end of the book she is writing with the maids) that "There is so much you don't know about a person...We are just two people.  Not that much separates us.  Not nearly as much as I'd thought."  I mean... if she only figured that out at the very end, what started her on the idea of the interview book in the first place?  Just the idea that it was something different and might get her a job?  That rung a bit hollow for me and made Skeeter seem, for a moment, like she was far more shallow than I had reason to think she was.  I was disappointed with her.

This novel is written by a white woman who grew up in Mississippi.  At the end of the book, she wrote a note about how terrifying it is for a white woman to write about the deep, complicated but sometimes ultimately affectionate relationships between a white person and a black one in the South at this time.  I think Stockett succeeds wonderfully because there are just so many relationships in this book that vary so much in their tone.  There is the achingly beautiful relationship between Aibileen and the baby girl she is helping to raise.  Between Minny and her sweet but clueless white trash employer.  Minny and her former, hated employer.  Between Skeeter and her former best friends, and Skeeter and her imperious mother.  And other ones that are on the sidelines, detailing stories of how some white people were so horrible to their help.  And some were so wonderful to them.  I truly appreciated how complex Stockett allowed all the relationships to be, and I enjoyed it the most in the relationship between Skeeter and her mother.  You couldn't fit more layers into that relationship if you inserted an onion into it.

This is a book that tells its story through the complex and moving relationships of its characters who ultimately realize that the "kindness don't have no boundaries."  I highly recommend this book to readers across all genres; it's wonderful.  And I don't think anyone could read this without falling completely in love with the character of Aibileen.  She is so kind and wonderful and generous, and a strong, excellently-written woman.

38 comments:

  1. I've read good things about this book also, on a few blogs. I keep forgetting when I go to the bookstore to buy this. I do want to read it, sounds very interesting.

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  2. There are indeed many book reviews already out on this, but I think you did a fantastic job in both summary and analysis. I agree Skeeter started out shallow and clueless (as in, do you ever wish things were different?!!!) but she grew some in the book. It probably was more realistic that way.

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  3. I've heard some pretty wonderful things about this book, and do want to read it. It does sound wonderful, and while I'm a little apprehensive about the book being over-emotional, the story does sound promising.

    Thanks for the review.

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  4. Wonderful review. This book and Cutting for Stone; Verghese were tied for my #1 books of 2009.

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  5. I am yet to read this book! I only read the first page of this book last year, but had to return it to the library asap! I loved that first chapter, now I hope to read this book soon!

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  6. I've heard nothing but nice things about this book, but I'm always reluctant to read Southern novels. It does sound wonderful though! One of these days...

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  7. When I first started seeing reviews for this book, I was skeptical and wasn't sure if I'd enjoy it, but with every new review I see I become more and more convinced that I need to pick it up, asap. Thanks for the great review!

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  8. This has been praised by so many and yet I still haven't managed to read it. Glad to hear you loved it too.

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  9. I loved this book too. And as I mentioned in my review of The Help, it resonated with me, since I have a lot of family history in Mississippi -- http://starkravingbibliophile.blogspot.com/2009/09/help-by-kathryn-stockett.html

    Thanks for this wonderful post! I enjoyed reliving the story through your review.

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  10. I had this book out from the library, but I didn't have time to read it. It looks really good, though!

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  11. This was a really great book. One of the best I read last year. Glad you liked it also

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  12. I have heard/read only positive comments about this book. I'd like to read it at some point.

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  13. I was given this book for Christmas and keep meaning to read it. I too fear that with so much hype, it won't live up to it all so I am glad to hear that for you, it still did!

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  14. I added this to my list after seeing it on so many "Best Of" lists too. I plan on reading it some time this year, and I suspect I won't be disappointed! Great review.

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  15. glad you liked it- and by the sound of things, you're not alone! :-) i still haven't read it. i gave away my galley months ago, oh well!

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  16. Sorry it's taken me so long to respond to comments! Seems like most people are saying pretty much the same thing: Those who read it, enjoyed it; those who haven't read it, plan to. I really enjoyed it and I think it does hold up to the hype well (or at least it did for me), so I hope those who want to read it are able to do so soon :-)

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  17. It sounds so interesting! I haven't read it either but a friend of mine loved it and is sending me her copy. I really can't wait now. Great review!

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  18. This IS one of those books you can really recommend to just about anyone. Glad you enjoyed it so much too!

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  19. I'm glad to hear it lived up to the hype. I always worry. I haven't read this yet but I intend to!

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  20. I have trouble reading white voices speaking about racism. It is a very hypocritical problem and one I am trying to overcome. Sometimes, just the thought of some white person writing about person-of-color experience makes me want to have a temper tantrum.

    That being said, your words on a book do much to alleviate my rage, as does your constant exploration of the idea of race and racism in books. I might try this one, if it doesn't send me into a tizzy :)

    Sudha

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  21. Mrs. B- Ooh, I'm excited for you to read it! Can't wait to hear your thoughts.

    Lenore- Agreed! There aren't many books I would do that for, but this is one.

    Rebecca- I always worry about books that are so hyped, too. Sometimes, as with Graceling, they just dont hit the spot for me.

    Sudha- Unfortunately, white people writing about people of color experiences seem to be more popular with readers than ones of people of color. Probably because POC are pigeon-holed into certain audiences and marketing sections.

    However, I think saying a white person can't write a realistic POC is like saying that an Israeli can't write about the Palestinian experience, or Indians can't write about the Nepalese. It's a really, really hard line to follow as it just leads to more pigeon-holing, doesn't it?

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  22. PS to Sudha- Both Harper Lee & Harriet Beecher Stowe were white women writing about black rights and look how their work shaped the country :-)

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  23. Oh wow, I've been reading so many good things about this book, I really must pick it up!

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  24. I'm actually starting this today. I'm glad to see you loved it. I'm always a little worried when there's so much hype for a book.

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  25. Now, THIS is a terrific, thoughtful review. Thanks, Aarti!

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  26. I have this book and am so glad to hear that it lives up to the hype! I really liked your indepth thoughts on all the characters in this book and think that it will be interesting to see how I feel about Skeeter now that I know what you thought of her. I hope that I am able to read and review this one soon because it looks really good.

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  27. Aarti, I am so glad that you enjoyed it! It was one of my favorites of 2009!

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  28. Excellent thoughts on this book Aarti. I too am one of the last to read (on purpose) because like you I am usually wary of books that dominate bestsellers lists. I have a copy and it's always staring me in the face. What really excites me after reading your thoughts is your highlight on the relationships in the book and Skeeter's progression. I'm never really sure how this will turn out in books, where a white main character is in a sense discovering other people in their worlds.

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  29. Thanks for this review. I've been avoiding this one because I thought it would be yet another badly done, dull contemporary 'issues' novel (those do seem to make the critics lists more than not) but hurray now I hear it is good I will put it back on the reading list.

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  30. I have this one downloaded now, and I really need to get back to it once I'm done clearing up some other things. I can't wait to really dig in since I've heard so many good things about it.

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  31. Clover- I hope you do and that you like it.

    Carol- Ooh, looking forward to your review!

    Greg- Thank you!

    Zibilee- I hope you can get to it soon, too. I think you would like it.

    Teddy Rose- Yes, I remember! Great taste we both have ;-)

    Leaning Toward the Sun- I completely agree. It's hard to read a book and not take the hype into account. I hope you also write in your review (if you read it soon) what you think of Skeeter's progression, or lack thereof.

    Jodie- Yes, givei t a try! I don't think it's really an "issues" novel. More a relationships one.

    Andi- Yes, finish those other outstanding books and then sit down and enjoy this one!

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  32. Despite all the rave reviews, it hadn't sunk in that this was a book *I* should read. But you sold me, Aarti! The complexity in particular just makes it sound wonderful.

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  33. My copy has arrived at the library! I requested it because everyone was raving about but your review brought home that I NEED to read it.

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  34. Aww, I'm glad you both now MUST read the book because of my review ;-) Muahaha, yay for us and our book enabling!

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  35. I'm FINALLY reading this book and so far it's great! Thanks for the review! I think I am officially the last person on Earth to read this book!

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  36. I haven't read it yet. =) Glad you enjoyed it.

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  37. One of my all time favorites!

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  38. One of my all time favorites!

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