Friday, March 19, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

So, The Help.  Number one on the bestseller list!  Book club favorite!  200 holds on the library wait list! The book that everyone in the world is reading, except me.  It had been sitting around the house almost three weeks, and I finally picked it up because I could not bear to return it and go back to the end of the line without even reading a single chapter.  And whoa!  I was hooked.

Sometimes, I am suspicious of hot-selling fiction, the type that is "perfect for book discussion groups."  I am frequently disappointed, like with The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which many, many people love and I absolutely hated.  But darn it all, the reason that The Help is so popular is because it's really, really good.  If you have not read it, please go out and put your name on the waiting list at the library, or put it on your birthday list, or go buy it, because you will not be sorry. 

Oh, but what is this book about, by the way?  Well.  1962, Jackson, Mississippi.  Hmmm, could this be about race relations?  Why, of course!  But so well done!  There are three main characters, and different chapters and sections are told from all three perspectives.  The first two sections are from the viewpoints of two African-American women, Aibileen and Minny, who are good friends and are both working as maids for wealthy white women, Junior-league types.  Aibileen is the maid and surrogate mother for a sweet little girl with a pretty horrible young mother, Elizabeth Leefolt -- she is the seventeenth child Aibileen has raised for other people.  Her friend Minny is working for the mother of Mrs. Leefolt's best friend Hilly Holbrook, who is an evil, racist witch.  Minny has a hard time keeping her opinions to herself, which makes it tough to find employment.

The third section is the viewpoint of Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, who is a young white lady with a trust fund, and a recent graduate of Ole Miss, where she was Hilly's roommate.  Unlike Hilly and Elizabeth, Skeeter did not go to college to get her MRS degree. She is bored beyond belief with bridge games and the Junior League, which is pretty much what young rich white women did back then, if they weren't married.  She wants to be a writer, not a housewife, and more than anything, she wants to find out what happened to her beloved Constantine, who was her family's housekeeper and the person she loved best in the world.  Constantine disappeared while she was away at college and no one is talking, not even the other maids in town like Aibileen.

So, with the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, the lives of these three women become entangled.  I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that they become involved in a project that has the potential to turn Jackson society upside down.  We get to know them and their families, and quite a few secrets as well.

These characters were so believable, and so distinctive, and the plot was so interesting that I could not put this book down.  The Help is about 440 pages and I read it all in one day.  Seriously.  The plot really moved, and the characters so well drawn that they seemed real to me --  I wish Ms. Stockett would write a sequel so I could find out what happened to everyone. Plus there's some really funny stuff in it.  I can absolutely understand why this book is so popular -- not only is it a great study of race relations, it's about friendships, and trust, and families, and thank God I didn't grow up in the South back then.  I can't imagine how awful it must have been as an African-American person at that time.  I hope my book group manages to get enough copies to discuss it soon, because I can't wait to talk to people about this book.  Until then I'll just have to recommend it to complete strangers.


  1. I have to admit, Karen, this is one book I'm not in the least bit interested in and I doubt I'd like it if I read it. :/

  2. I kind of thought so -- I'm beginning to anticipate your taste in books. This is not one I would have chosen for you. But I think it's a great book for discussing, so I predict it will continue to be a hot seller and a popular book club choice.

  3. heheh, I imagine i'm pretty predictable...

  4. I enjoyed this book when I read it, but since then I've seen some debate on it that has made me reconsider. I still enjoy the story, but I think it's good that discussion opened up about it. For example, why did the black women speak in dialect, but the whites did not? Is that accurate? Also, I didn't really feel Skeeter learned much, as at the end of the book, she seemed to have a sort of epiphany in the pharmacy... and I feel she should have had it earlier.

  5. I have been avoiding The Help for the very reasons you mentioned. I just gave in and ordered it though, and almost immediately wondered why I did that! But I feel much better about the impulse after reading your post!

  6. I confess that I hadn't heard of this book until Thursday, when a good friend raved about it and made me promise that I would read it. I was skeptical, because I'm not much of a best-seller reader, but after reading your review, I will definitely put this on the list.

    Great review--I really enjoyed your enthusiasm for the book and your honesty in your initial reservations.

  7. Amanda - I don't think you're predictable, I think I've just gotten to know your taste. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

    Aarti -- OMG, I just read this on Tuesday and I can't remember what happened at the pharmacy! And I returned it today. How embarassing.

    What sort of debate? I did wonder a bit about a white writer speaking for blacks, but I felt better about it after reading the afterward. I've taken classes in multicultural children's lit, and it is a BIG issue, whether or not white writers should write about nonwhites.

    I suppose she could have written Skeeter with a Southern accent, though they probably all had Southern accents. I think she was just trying to write the way they talked.

    Lindsey -- I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets turned off by book hype. I was so pleasantly surprised and I've been recommending it to everyone.

    Jane -- thanks so much! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I'm glad your friend liked it too.

  8. I had a similar reaction to The Help: skeptical about it holding up to the hype, avoiding reading it, picking it up because it was a book club choice for the month, and being consumed by it. it certainly wasn't perfect but it was definitely engrossing and brings up some good discussion topics.

  9. Wow, this sounds just like me! My book club is discussing tomorrow and I put it off for all of March. Finally picked it up last week and read it in a day.

    I do think there are problems with it (I don't konw the arguments Aarti saw about it but I do agree that Skeeter is not quite all there), but because I really had decided before I read it that it was bad (and not worth the hype) I was pleasantly surprised.

  10. I am listening to the audiobook version right now and it is fantastic! Trust me, Skeeter and the other white women have marvelous drawls. I can remember having a black maid who came once a week to our home in Houston, Texas - this would have been the mid-to-late 60s, and I believe it was only for a short while when my mother was recovering from surgery after her 5th child. Her name was Mariah, she wore the white uniform, the main thing she did was the laundry and ironing, but she used the family bathroom, not a separate one!

    I now live in an even smaller town in Texas and our book club will be discussing this book in June.

  11. Nice to hear that your family didn't discriminate!

    I'm in San Antonio, TX, and we have a lot of native Texans in the group, so I hope we can discuss it eventually. Even though some people don't consider Texas the south, it will be great to get perspectives from these folks.