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[458] The Help – Kathryn Stockett

” [Aibileen] come home that morning, after I been fired, and stood outside my house with my new work shoes on. The shoes my mama paid a month’s worth a light bill for. I guess that’s when I understood what shame was and the color of it too. Shame isn’t black, like dirt, like I always thought it was. Shame be the color of a new white uniform your mother ironed night to pay for, white without a smudge or a speck of a work-dirt on it. ” (Ch.11, p.175-176)

The Help is about a young woman, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a budding activist, an aspiring writer in early 1960s who becomes interested in the plight of black maids that every family in the south has working for them. At the League meeting, headed by Hilly Holbrook, who has an antebellum attitude towards race and puts forward a health initiative that requires every home to have a separate toilet for the help, based on clear hygienic criteria, because “[the blacks] carry different kinds of diseases than [the whites] do.” (Ch.1, p.10) Given the social psyche, and that she strikes fear in those who dare to oppose her, it’s an invincible task for Skeeter to challenge Hilly’s discriminatory measure, which is rooted in the segregation laws.

White people been representing colored opinions since the beginning of time. (Ch.10, p.150)

She conceives an idea for a book, a tell-all, that exposes what it’s like for the black maids to tend white people. Her friends’ maids are her first targets for interviews. At first hesitant, fearing for their family’s safety, both the lovingly maternal Aibileen and scrappy Minny need some convincing and reassurance to collaborate in the project. Their example quickly becomes the strength of others who, knowing the law will never be on their side, thrive in silence. A dozen maids come forward to volunteer their stories.

I go quiet, thinking of Hilly’s bathroom plan and accusing the maid of stealing and her talk of diseases. The name comes out flat, bitter as a bed pecan. (Ch.9, p.143)

Meanwhile, Skeeter is plying Aibileen and her mother about Constantine, who was missed abruptly after twenty-nine years of service at the Phelans. As more maids come to tell their stories, Skeeter also learns the poignant truth about Constantine and her light-skinned daughter. The Help is a resonant portrait of the intertwined lives of women on the opposite sides of the racial divide. It shows how race sows bitter seeds in the dignity of women who feel they have no choices except to follow their mamas into the white women’s kitchens and laundries. Also exposed are ironies and hypocrisies that define this country, which evolves from shameful undercurrent of persistent racism.

I read through four of the twenty-five pages, mesmerized by how many laws exist to separate us. Negroes and whites are not allowed to share water fountains, movie houses, public restrooms, ballparks, phone booths, circus shows. … (Ch.13, p.203)

Despite some stylistic flaws (black maids paraphrasing their white ladies in perfect English while they ramble on in dialect; white women are completely free of the linguistic quirk rife among white southerners), The Help succeeds in what literature ought to achieve—appraising and exposing human condition. However exaggerated the story might be in spurts, it demonstrates the indomitable will of human beings to survive against all odds. Criticism against this book, in the regard that it distorts and trivializes experiences of black domestic workers is understand but irrelevant, because The Help is a work of fiction, not a history book. What fiction is free of a subjective perspective? After all, it is not the black maids who are done a disservice by this white writer, it’s the white folk. The book certainly touches some nerves and addresses issues we rather keep mum about. It’s poignant but not melodramatic, scathing but also funny. Other than infuriating racial issues, the book also paints lives of women and their struggles—in parenting, in trying to fit in, and in their troubled marriages.

522 pp. Berkeley Books Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

10 Responses

  1. I shied away from this one when it came out because it was too popular and everyone was reading it but I think enough time has passed now and your review reassures me that I will enjoy it when I read it.

  2. “White people been representing colored opinions since the beginning of time. (Ch.10, p.150)”

    I guess that quote pretty much sums up my problem with the book, as it becomes yet another example of a white person representing black opinions. Her intentions may be good, but as they say, the road to hell is paved with them.

  3. A great review. Sums up my thoughts on this one. A worthwhile read with some problematic elements.

    • As a work of fiction it succeeds in every way. I just thought the writing style could be better, a more complete and authentic use of southern dialect on the author’s part.

  4. […] [458] The Help – Kathryn Stockett […]

  5. […] [458] The Help – Kathryn Stockett […]

  6. […] in a pretty nuanced way, although there were clumsy aspects to the novel. As Matt pointed out in his recent review of the novel, a particularly glaring one was the way that the black maids would write or speak in dialect, while […]

  7. […] centuries, and would be great reading for a cross-Atlantic flight. The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Review The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Review The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. […]

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