The Help, by Kathryn Stockett: A Book Review

So, I have a confession to make….. I watched the movie before I read the book!

That’s probably a sin in the world of English majors and literature lovers, and I am a little ashamed to say that I may not have picked up this novel if it had been the other way around. However, it was an incredibly enriching reading experience, and has landed itself a place on my bookshelf of favorites!

The story alternates between the different perspectives of three different women: Aibeleen, Minny, and Skeeter. Aibeleen and Minny are two black maids working for white families in 1962, Jackson, Mississippi. The Civil Rights Movement is kicking into full gear, but they live lives that don’t allow for equality or free speech, no matter what their employers are like. Aibeleen is older and more tired, especially since the death of her son. Her friend Minny can’t stand the way she’s treated by the white folks and has a mouth to match the level of her discontent.

Skeeter is a recent college graduate, and is pestered by her ailing but traditional Southern mama to find a man. Tired of being pressured to follow the predictable life-paths that all her friends have followed (ie: marriage and children), she takes the first step towards pursuing a writing career by taking a job with The Jackson Journal. Skeeter’s dream of writing something that will make a difference is eventually realized when she decides to interview the maids of Jackson to write an anonymous book detailing their stories and opinions about working for white families in the South.

Aibeleen, Minny, and Skeeter must learn to face the challenges of racism, old traditions, and an entire way of life in order to produce a work that will make people stop and think, and hopefully effect greater changes.

What I Didn’t Like

To be perfectly honest, there was nothing about this book that I didn’t like—and that’s pretty rare for me! If I had to put something down, then I’d say that I found some of the reviews I read to be disappointing. I’ve seen many opinions claiming that Stockett used a “white-girl-is-the-only-one-to-help-fight-racism” kind of storyline, or that she wrote from the perspective of a demographic with which she had no personal experiences in common.

I disagree with both of these points. First of all, Skeeter takes the role of a scribe in the book. She doesn’t try to take over the project and tell Aibeleen and Minny what to think. She is the conduit through which their stories flow out into a world that doesn’t want to listen. Jackson in the 60’s was a dangerous place to be promoting racial equality and civil rights, so in that sense, Skeeter is a vital character. Without her, the maids don’t have a slightly safer and clandestine outlet for their life experiences.

Secondly, Stockett grew up in Mississippi and remembers her own family’s maid, Demetrie. That’s about as close as a white person can get to the experience of a black maid in the South. So to all the naysayers out there, I raise you this: Should we never read a book about the Holocaust, just because it wasn’t written by a survivor? Why should we read mystery novels that aren’t written by real detectives? Fantasy would be completely eliminated as a genre, because I know of no ogres, fairies, or ice queens who have written their own books lately. That’s the beauty of blending imagination with fact. If you stick to what is true and fill in the gaps as best as you can, based on what you know, then you’ve got a solid story. Hence the reason this book was on the NYT Bestseller List and made into a very popular movie!

What I Did Like

There are so many things that I love about this book, but I’ll give you my top 3:

  1. I really related to Skeeter. I’m at a similar crossroads in my life, and I certainly want to pursue my writing ambitions. A Patch of Edelweiss is essentially my own, self-imposed equivalent of her “Miss Myrna” columns, only much more fun! I’m also very tall and have never been asked out on a date. What I like about Skeeter is that she’s itching to move on with her life and wants to explore her interests, and she’s not going to settle for a guy just for the sake of tradition, but isn’t completely ruling out that option either. All too often, I have come across books that have a heavy dose of modern-day feminism: Who needs men? They’re all jerks anyway! I’m going to focus on my career and not let a man and kids get in the way! What I appreciate about Skeeter is that she still wants a relationship, and kids down the line, but she’s not in a rush to get there just for the sake of keeping pace with her peers. When it’s right, it’ll happen. That’s a refreshing stance.
  2. The Help gave me a glimpse into the culture of South, and thus, my family history. My mom’s side of the family has deep Southern roots, from Alabama, to New Orleans, to Texas. My great-great-grandmother had “help,” and this book gave me a new understanding and perspective on where I come from and how it assisted in shaping who I am today. Plus, it’s a fantastic book to read during an early summer heat wave! I could just picture myself sitting on a front porch in Jackson, sipping sweet iced tea and watching the plot unfold….. Chocolate pie, anyone?
  3.  I loved the teamwork that had to exist between these three women. There had to be a lot of breaking down walls, building up trust, and the willingness to sacrifice and be vulnerable for a greater purpose. Aibeleen and Minny, especially, overcame these obstacles with grace. Aibeleen learns when it’s time to break the silence and let go of a certain stage of life, while Minny bonds with her new employer and finds a white person who is just as broken and shut out as she is. There was also an element of fairness that I appreciated. Skeeter wasn’t being superior to the maids, and Aibeleen and Minny weren’t nasty and suspicious of her every move. Today, all I have to do is turn on the news to find an example of someone using racism as an excuse for trying to get away with bad behavior. The Help was an example of how I wish tough subjects could always be handled: with balance, kindness, and an open mind.
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Have you read The Help, and if so what did you think of it? Leave your comments below.

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