California Literary Review

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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February 8th, 2009 at 10:59 am

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
Putnam, 464 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★½☆

Mississippi Slow Burning

Hattie McDaniel, the Academy-Award winning actress who played Mammy in Gone with the Wind reportedly once said: “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”

Of course, she didn’t have much of a choice. For McDaniel in Hollywood, like many black women throughout the United States, the only role that white folks would accept her in was a domestic one. Mammy was expected to be chief bottle washer, maid, cook, and helpmeet. She could tell outlandish stories, sing spirituals or drop pearls of wisdom – that was part of her “character” – but speaking her true mind was out. She was, to all intents and purposes, the invisible woman.

The story of these unseen women forms the basis of Kathryn Stockett’s entertaining and problematic novel, The Help. Entertaining in that it is a yarn well spun, a tale of women’s lives that has its antecedents in books like the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood or The Joy Luck Club. Full of plot twists and sly humor, The Help is what you might call an old-fashioned page turner.

Problematic in that this page turner is set in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s, and is told from three points of view. Skeeter, an educated and prosperous young woman with no real plans for the future, is white. Aibileen and Minny, the titular help who reveal their stories, are black.

Now this, on the face of it, should not be a problem. Toni Morrison was happy to speak in the voice of white people in her recent book A Mercy and reviewers, including this one, were happy to accept the premise. There are no rules in novels (critics have fun superimposing those later).

And if you’re going to focus on the closeted, almost harem-like world of women in Jackson during the Kennedy years, choosing to speak with the voices of those who see all and hear all and ostensibly say nothing seems like a good choice.

Yet when an author treads into specific territories, the ground becomes awfully muddy. We’re happy to let writers play around with being a Roman slave of the first century or a prostitute of the eighteenth, but when it comes to depicting a person who has lived through the Holocaust or the Civil Rights era, ah, then I think we hesitate. Does an author, even in the services of fiction, have a right to appropriate these stories?

Stockett is smart enough to know she will be asked this question, and she tackles it in a number of ways. For one, she starts and finishes The Help with Aibileen’s narrative. Aibileen is middle-aged and without family – she lost a grown son to an industrial accident – but has raised seventeen white children as part of her duties. Maternal by nature, she nonetheless retains a dry sense of wit about her former charges:

And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years old. It’s always nice seeing the kids grown up fine.

Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, taking care of her daughter, Mae Mobley, and spends most of her time silently shielding the fat little girl from her mother’s verbal abuse.

Her friend Minny, on the other hand, has no problem with speaking her mind. Mother of five and married to an abusive drunk who works the night shift, Minny is known around Jackson as the best cook in the city and the one with the biggest mouth. If you can hear the theme tune of Gone With the Wind playing, Stockett can too:

If I’d played Mammy, I’d of told Scarlett to stick those green draperies up her white little pooper. Make her own damn man-catching dress.

After insulting the queen bee of the white hive, Miss Hilly, Minny is cast out from society, eventually ending up in the employment of a scatterbrained “white-trash” Miss Celia.

Between them, Aibileen and Minny have seen a lifetime of trouble and amusement, enough to fill a library. But Stockett leaves it up to Miss Skeeter to put the plot in motion. An aspiring writer, she decides to make her reputation by secretly interviewing black maids and compiling the experiences into one book. Maybe that will be her ticket to New York.

This being Mississippi at the height of segregation, library sit-ins and NAACP assassinations, complications invariably ensue. Miss Hilly, head of the Junior League and a filthily polite racist, begins to suspect Skeeter of radical notions and sets out to gun her and her conspirators down. This isn’t an idle threat. Though a white man’s fist hurts, Aibileen notes, a white woman’s slander has the power to destroy lives:

No, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with em.

It takes a great deal of wit and will to combat Miss Hilly – toilets feature prominently in this battle – even as all three narrators must continue to deal with their regular lives. A Marilyn Monroe look-alike loses her mind, a handsome boyfriend appears and disappears, and personal tragedies loom. A grand finale is needed to tie up all these threads, and that’s what is delivered (if a trifle too conveniently in a couple of instances).

Amidst all this hoopla, Stockett explicitly, some might say obviously, points out the narrators’ widening awareness of the larger world. She has Aibileen reading seminal books by black Americans, Skeeter growing her hair long, and Minny dealing with domestic violence.

Yet when it comes to Skeeter’s true dilemma – whether she is exploiting others for personal gain – Stockett chooses to nick the surface and move on. She is certainly careful to have Gretchen, a young maid, accuse Skeeter outright:

Another white lady trying to make a dollar off of colored people.

But it is an accusation that is never thoroughly investigated. Gretchen lasts all of a page before Aibileen firmly steps in to contradict such a notion. Similarly, to bolster Skeeter’s case, over the course of the novel Stockett ensures that her white woman becomes more of a transcriber than a writer, with the maids often dictating or typing their own stories for her to edit. They will share the profits at the end; Skeeter will merely be the enabler.

Ay, there’s the rub. For as much as The Help is a rollicking read, I still come back to the uneasy feeling that Skeeter, for all her awkward bumbling, is the narrator who truly frames the novel. Unsurprisingly, her story seems the most personal and the most convenient, the one most like Stockett’s life. Like Stockett, she grows up in Jackson and goes off to New York to make her fortune. And, like Stockett, she has the final edit on the narratives of others. Now I have never lived in the south, so I cannot answer to the truth of Aibileen and Minny’s voices and experiences. I can wonder, though, how black women of 1962 would respond to this 21st century version of themselves.

Is Minny with her outlandish catchphrases just another version of Mammy, updated for more sensitive times? Even if stories haven’t been told, is it fair for an outsider to tell them? What would Hattie McDaniel, who worked as that $7 maid before making it to Hollywood, think of this book?

These may not be fair questions to ask of a novel that sets out to entertain and does so with great panache, but, being a dour reviewer, I’ll ask them anyway.

  • Elizabeth

    It really floors me when educated people keep commenting that the author need be of black heritage in order to write a fictional book, partly, from a black woman’s perspective. That is absolutely ridiculous and narrow minded. No one would want to pick up a book of fiction ever again if they all had to be autobiographical. This is just a guess, but I really don’t think that J.K. Rowling was ever a young wizard boy?

  • http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com Onyx

    Hi Autumn,

    Thanks for your response.
    I’m glad you went into detail, in particular why you feel Skeeter and Aibileen’s last meeting did not result in a hug.

    You said:

    “I felt it realistic. They were both so scared of somebody coming in and finding them out so they kept it casual. I felt from the writing that both wanted to hug and/or show affection toward each other, but they were scared of the consequences of being found out.”

    From page 435: We ain’t seen each other in person in six months. I give her a good hug. (Aibileen)

    My issue was that in the book, an overt show of affection is one sided. So I hope you can understand why it’s a sticking point with me, especially since in many novels of this kind it’s done this way (Showboat – Julie gives up her livelihood so Magnolia can have a job, Imitation of Life – Delilah offers to give up her fortune in the pancake business so long as Bea will allow her to stay on and cook, GWTW- Mammy had no life other than taking care of the O’Hara’s and then Scarlett’s family).

    In the book Aibileen risks her livelihood and life to gather the maids Skeeter needs and to secretly meet.

    So here’s why I think Aibileen and Skeeter’s last meeting
    was should not have lacked for closeness on both their parts:

    Since Skeeter was so devastated over losing someone close already (Constantine) and based upon all that Aibileen and Skeeter went through, why wouldn’t Skeeter either profess how much she appreciates Aibileen’s help or do something to show she truly does value what Aibileen did for her, and that she’ll miss her?
    (sorry, getting her the job at the paper after she was already giving the answers doesn’t seem as enough)

    Since Skeeter is never pushed to admit what she truly feels about race relations (after everything she now knows, does she believe segregation is wrong? or that Aibileen, Constantine and Minny are her equal?)

    Since the book is set squarely at the height of the civil rights era, I don’t think that’s asking too much. Especially when real life individuals, like nineteen year old Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was standing shoulder to shoulder with black college students and publicly speaking out, protesting and participating in the Jackson Woolworth sit-in.

    In their last scene together, Aibileen inwardly says:
    I think about the first time Miss Skeeter come to my house, how awkward we was. Now I feel like we family. (Pg 436)

    And Aibileen presents Skeeter with a copy of the book signed by all the church members, while Skeeter reads the thank you’s and tears fill her eyes.

    Yet after all that, all Aibileen gets is a “Thank you?”

    Then the author has Aibileen in bed crying because she’s so happy for Skeeter (I doubt if Skeeter is doing the same thing for Aibileen)
    “That night I lay in bed thinking. I am so happy for Miss Skeeter. She starting her whole life over. Tears run down my temples into my ears, thinking about her walking down them big city avenues I seen on tee-vee with her long hair behind her. (Pg 437)

    It’s a tried and true tactic some authors use, so that readers can “feel” for the minority or other stock character. But this is 2010. It wasn’t needed imo. Aibileen is so sweetly docile and saintly already throughout the novel, it reads too much as manipulation, and Skeeter’s reactions (or lack of them) stand out to me.

    I have a feeling the movie will change this.

    I’ll only comment on one more of your replies:

    “Is this book perfect? Heck no, but it was enjoyable if one is willing to put back their own feelings on racism and incidents that happened to you and/or your family and loved ones.”

    I suspect since the harm done by segregation was not universal, tales like this will always be enjoyable, especially since the author admitted she wanted to inject humor into the novel.

    Segregation went on for over a century. Even after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the author revealed that her grandmother still didn’t allow her to sit at the same table with the maid the book is partly based on (account is in the back of the book and on Stockett’s website) and this was during the 70s and 80s. There are also individuals still alive who went through it first hand, just like there are survivors from other atrocities.

    I’m still waiting on that “enjoyable” best seller written from the perspective of someone taking on the voice of both a Nazi sympathizer and a Jewish concentration camp prisoner, or about 9/11, or Apartheid, or perhaps Japanese in US internment camps, even one on current prisoners of war, yeah, maybe it’s time to redo Hogan’s Heroes. I then wonder how many readers will even be approached about setting aside their feelings, or be able to.

    Anyway, please know that I’m really glad to have had this discussion, and I do understand why the book has resonated with many readers. I’m glad we got a chance to discuss our differences though.

    Thanks again for your reply.

  • http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com Onyx

    Sorry, that last part should read “the author revealed that her grandmother still didn’t allow her to sit at the same DINNER table with the maid the book is partly based on (account is in the back of the book and on Stockett’s website) and this was during the 70s and 80s.”

    *****

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I’ve never thought of myself as a fantasy creature, but a real life woman with dreams, goals and accompishments that I could achieve on my own, if I worked hard enough for them.

    Maybe that’s what Stockett missed in the novel. Because to me, there’s no character development.

    Oh heck, since I started this post I might as well list why Stockett missed the boat writing while “black” (but listen, I’ve got no problem with her reaching out and broadening her horizons. I just don’t think she quite captured that we behave just like other women).

    For example:
    Aibileen can give teach Mae Mobley daily, positive affirmations but can’t offer comfort to her best friend’s children who are also witnessing and in all probability being abused. If you can love your employer’s children, you can certainly care for your best friend’s.

    Minny, a woman who’s been abused for over fifteen years is so stuck in the “Bossy” maid stereotype that all known data flies out the window, because she’s supposed to provide laughs.

    Until Skeeter comes along, neither Minny or Aibileen act as if they have any dreams or goals, as if only by Skeeter’s intervention do they awake from inactivity and realize there’s a civil rights movement rising in the city where they reside.

    Minny’s uncalled for remarks about Shirley Boon, a woman trying to organize a sit in. No, the author has Minny’s reasoning for dismissing getting involved and acting as if the maids stories are of equal or greater importance than the civil rights struggle. But it’s okay, because Minny’s the one who doesn’t think before she speaks.

    Minny never tells her children she loves them. Not once in book, while Hilly as the villain does. But there are scenes where Minny talks about wanting to get away from them. And this abused woman smacks her own child when Sugar (her daughter) gossips about Celia, something she (Minny) has been doing throughout the novel.

    Aibileen can cry a river over Skeeter, who’s alive and well, yet the reader gets no scenes of grief regarding her own son. It’s not like Treelore (gotta love that name. Actually, I hate it. That and many others meant to show how “colorful” black names are I suppose)

    OT:
    The Medgar Evers getting bludgeoned line by Skeeter. It would be if I said Bobby Kennedy had died of a bludgeoning instead of being shot.

    What worked for me:

    Mae Mobley and Aibileen, though I could have done with all the manipulation of “You is kind, you is smart…” and the potty scene meant to show even a two year old realizes segregation is wrong via a toilet. Aibileen’s exaggerated dialect narration, especially the word “Law” and the over insertion of the word ‘be’, as in ‘she be’, ‘he be’, etc.

    I enjoyed the relationship between Louvenia and her employer Lou Anne, and what Lou Anne did for Robert, Louvenia’s grandson. These two characters were the best thing about the novel for me.

    Minny and Celia, but only with the naked pervert scene cut, and Minny’s speech less crude. She just wasn’t funny. It was a bad stereotype of a stereotype.
    I’m surprised she wasn’t wearing a bandana and carrying a tea service while saying “Mo tea suh?”

    Cut the character of Leroy all together. It’s obvious he was based on Clyde/Plunk, the husband of Demetrie (Stockett’s grandparent’s maid) who physically abused her.

    Okay, that’s it for now:) Anyway, nice chatting with you.

  • Jane

    Congodog sounds filled with hate. But I will say(to her comment that white people can’t raise their own families)…it doesn’t seem as if black single moms( with no fathers for their children) are doing as good a job raising their families as black families did in the previous decades.At least back then,many of the families had 2 parents. OF course, the same can be said of single white women today as well.

  • Robyn

    I was so sorry to finish this book because I just loved it. I hope to see a movie version & I also think the ending lends itself to a sequel. I will wait patiently for Kathryn to provide one!

  • Mary

    I read this for a book club, found it very odd, having been born white in the north in 1950. Appreciate Nadia’s viewpoint VERY much. Can’t imagine all the black women under somebody’s thumb were so happy about it, also the complete absence of any sex harassment rings false. Stockett grew up with an elderly maid and grandparents, maybe that’s why the world she creates sounds as if it’s the 1930’s instead of the 1960’s.
    I agree with complaints about dialect. When I hear southerners with a heavy accent, I can’t guess if they are black or white! Which amuses me greatly.
    Finally, one of my few sojourns in the south was the airport in Birmingham. I was struck by how watchful and reserved blacks were toward whites. I have a black friend who moved from Alabama to California where he became a person I’m quite sure he could never be in Alabama. He is a playwright, a firefighter, drives a porsche and has long braided hair.
    This book disappointed me, it only touched the surface and told no hard truths. The emotions of that time must have been far more powerful, given that Mississippi was a powderkeg!

  • Violet

    This book is not very understanding of, or sympathetic to,
    “white trash.” I guess it’s okay to mock poor white people, to caricature them and make them the laughingstock of the society, or certainly, to provide comic relief in the book.
    To call this book a beach read is to compliment it.

  • http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress Onyx

    There are digitized copies of the newspaper Stockett used for her “research” on the novel that are free to view for all. The paper is the Clarion-Ledger, which has been revealed as a pro-segregation paper (as evident by many of the articles bent on furthering oppression)

    Link:http://civilrights.historybeat.com/gn_civilrights_newspapers.php

    Far too many politicians, businessmen and citizens of Jackson, as well as others around the country belonged to the Citizen’s Council, formerly called the White Citizens Council. I wish to stress that not all residents of Jackson were members. And yes, it was a different time period. But the “affection” between blacks and whites is sorely lacking from the letters to the editor by average citizens and articles.

    It’s also is a testiment of how things have indeed changed. This trip back in time will be an eye opener for those interested.

    The Citizen’s Council isn’t in The Help, though there’s no way Hilly, Senator “Stoolie” Whitworth, Real Estate owner Johnny Foote, Skeeter’s father Carlton among others wouldn’t have either been members or known those who were.

    The glaring omission of the CC from the novel is yet another reimagining of a time period that was neither “quaint” or “humorous” for those forced to endure it.

  • jade

    thanks, Onyx, for your thoughtful posts. I’ve enjoyed reading them and look forward to perusing your website.

    I am an immigrant to the US. The book was recommended to me by a friend of diverse heritage ( Sri Lankan and Colombian). Neither of us have first hand knowledge of the times or setting of this book. However, I reached the conclusion long ago that I couldn’t understand my adopted country without understanding the dynamics of slavery and its aftermath. I’ve studied the civil rights movement, and am well versed in the major events, key figures, and tensions within the movement. what I don’t know about is how life was away from the headlines, how it translated into the minutes of everyday lives. So on one hand it was interesting to read an attempt to provide an account of that. With respect to the comparisons to Jews, I think one critical difference is the degree to which the races lived together in the south – Jews didn’t keep house for Germans in the 30s, and didn’t provide care for their children. So to read a (fictional)account of how that might play out day by day, the interactions between women from different worlds but at close quarters, is intriguing.And I think there’s a universality to some of the situations; some of the choices Aibileen and Minny make are choices socio-economically underprivileged women still face, particularly when they have children to support; we all wish we could challenge injustice but when faced with it we often make the choices that keep our children safe. Few of us are willing to endanger them for the greater good. And the book was a page-turner – i read it at one sitting. Having said that, fundamentally it did not ring true for me – again, I have no family stories to measure it against – but i found the plot lines predictable and a little trite. I don’t believe in Skeeter’s transformation, and her relationship with Aibileen seems forced. Still, I applaud the attempt to provide a window into a world that has shaped our country. I don’t think the picture it provided was quite accurate, but it got me thinking about a time and place that is critical to our understanding of the US, and therefore on balance I’m glad I read the book.

    what I really want to read are the firsthand accounts of women who lived through this time – I hope someone is collecting their stories and archiving them before it’s too late. I would love to read them, and think they would be ultimately more satisfying than a work of fiction.

  • P. Archer

    I have just finished listening to this book on tape. Can someone explain to me what happened to Patricia? Did I miss it? Was it not disclosed in the book?

  • http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress Onyx

    Hi Jade,

    Thanks for your comment. You’re probably aware by now that Kathryn Stockett is being sued by a real life maid who works for the author’s brother and sister in law. The woman’s name is Ablene Cooper. More on the lawsuit can be found here:

    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/family-maid-files-suit-against-author-of-the-help/

    Not only is the article interesting, but the readers comments are quite insightful.

    I’d like to recommend one more site. A blogger by the name of Macon D asked this question and a number commentors responded:

    “Here’s something that I as a white person can never really know — what’s it like for non-white children when they have to sit through an education system that still normalizes and glorifies white people and white ways, more or less all of the time? A system that also still denigrates the contributions and lived experiences of people of color, more or less all of the time?”

    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/force-non-white-students-to-read-great.html

    ******

    Hello P. Archer,

    On page 353 of the novel, Stuart reveals to Skeeter that he drove all the way to San Francisco to see Patricia in order to get her “out of his head”. They had it out, and when he came back to Jackson he to let Skeeter know that his feelings for Patricia were dead and gone.

  • http://booksinnorthport.blogspot.com/ P. J. Grath

    Here’s the movie I want to see: a movie with all the people here on this site talking to each other–black, white, born and immigrant Americans, men and women, Southerners and Northerners. I have spent half the day reading these comments and am quite overcome at this point. To me this exchange of thoughts and feelings is more complex, more fascinating, deeper and infinitely more important to the future of our country and our world than the book that touched off the conversation, and I am grateful to everyone who posted an opinion here, but especially to those who have hung in with the conversation and responded personally to others’ comments. It isn’t easy to stay in conversation when there is so much disagreement. If we can do it, there’s hope for us yet.

  • http://www.colleenclarke.com Colleen

    I loved this book and tomorrow our book club is discussing it. There were over 460 holds on the book at the library when it was selected and the wait was more than worth it. Everyone I recommended this book to, lovvvvveeeeddd it as well! I am so excited to see the movie. I read many of the comments and as a Canadian who hears few accents aside from British and East Indian, I found the writing of the different voices helped define the different characters. To those of us with a naiive ear to southern accents and black speech, many African American accents, for lack of a better word, are hackneyed and full of broken English so I liked the way the author presented all the voices. We talk so fast in the north that the writing helped slow down the tempo which is how southerns speak, slow with a drawl, not all, but that’s where it comes from, doesn’t it. Loved it all!

  • http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com Onyx

    Hi Colleen,

    “many African American accents, for lack of a better word, are hackneyed and full of broken English so I liked the way the author presented all the voices”

    Just like I wouldn’t presume that many Canadians, for lack of a better word use “Aye?” after the end of each sentence, your post reflects just what is quite frustrating and rather sterotypical about Stockett’s novel. There’s no diversity in the black women, save for the ones closer to white, like Lulabelle, Yule May Crookle (no naps in her hair, signifying “good hair”) or Gretchen who conveniently all speak without a “southern” accent or as you put it so indelicately, “hackneyed and full of broken English”.

  • Christy

    I find it ironic that a member from the same group that economically oppressed black folks — and made money off of our oppression now gets to do it again by writing a book about that same oppression. Isn’t life a hoot.

  • http://http://calitreview.com/2526 Donna

    It was difficult to accept the authenticity of Kathryn Stockett’s voice after wading through the first chapter. To compare this with a wonderful book such as “The Joy Luck Club”, a pleasurable read from the first page just does not compare. I’d squarely place this book into the “Eat Love Pray” bin where all the hype does not warrant all the attention given.

  • Claire

    I LOVED THIS BOOK I COULDN’T GET ENOUGH!! SEQUEL???

  • Dianne

    Just finished reading The Help. I grew up in the south in the sixties and here’s what I think — It portrays southern whites in the sixties as (for the most part) pretentious, bigoted racists, a portrayal that is biased and inaccurate. Naturally, it’s on the best seller list. It panders to the base human emotions of wanting to feel superior because, of course, the reader is not bigoted or racist. Unlike the author, I grew up in the deep south in the sixties. Most people I knew, white or black, were doing the best they could in a region with a lot of economic and social problems. As is true in any region, there were a few bad apples, but they were a tiny minority. I never knew anyone as mean, shallow or racist as Miss Hilly and her coterie. The real problem with this novel (it’s a novel, not history) is that it encourages regional hatreds and mistrust. Its appeal, besides being sensational, is that it allows people to assume that they are morally superior. We read about obnoxious people and then feel good about denouncing them.

  • Anne Hayes

    Can someone please tell this ignorant Englishwoman – what is Skeeter short for? A Mosquito or something else? Many thanks, Anne hayes

  • Raelene Heffernan

    I loved this book. Probably the best one we have had at our book club. Also the comments expressed above are quite varied. Very interesting. When you enjoy a book as much as I did this one you expect everyone will enjoy it. Can’t wait to discuss it at our next meeting.

  • Dorene

    I was going to read this book. But in memory of my grandmother, I can’t. She was a domestic worker. Please believe me when I tell you that she DID NOT like or love her white employers or their children. I am sure white people would like to think that but it is a lie. Nine times out of ten, they were just doing what they had to do to survive and take care of their families. Corey, Onyx, and Nadia are on point.

  • http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com onyx

    Hello Dorene,

    Thanks for your post. Your sentiment was brought up on another board, and I think it’s picking up steam.

    That is, while there are quite a few readers proclaiming how much love there was between employers and their “help” (and some of the testimonials are quite touching) those who identify themselves as former domestics speak of no similar affection, or in the large numbers as those who laud Stockett’s novel.

    And I believe that’s the problem. So much was regulated by segregation, that now, years later, the controlling of how past employer/employee relationships as well as black/white relations were perceived differ greatly.

    Thankfully, there’s enough recorded and documented history to show that affection had nothing to do with winning civil rights. It took blood, sweat and tears. The ultimate toll was the senseless murders of some courageous individuals, both black and white during the struggle for freedom.

    OT:
    **best non-fiction book I’ve read all year: Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” which chronicles the great migration of African Americans from the south **

  • lily05

    Anne Hayes – Skeeter is short for mosquito – it’s in the book – Eugenia’s brother Carlton likens her to a mosquito all long,spindly and skinny as a baby, and her physical characteristics are frequently referred to as a point of difference, which the novel seems to be about – imagined, metaphorical and surface differences. Onyx, you must have missed the constant reference to Eugenia Phelan as a mosquito “Skeeter” (insect) in your headlong rush to see more insult and injury lurking behind every sentence. It would seem to suit your theory of ongoing persecution and conspiracy to consider her and every other “white” person a bloodsucker, no doubt! Nadia, you really do have to read the book to make comment- you seem to have gotten the wrong end of the stick entirely. There is nothing gratuitously humourous or callously caricatured in this story. It takes the injustice, the wrongness, the encultured and entrenched racism and “man’s inhumanity to man” very seriously.

  • http://www.acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com Onyx

    Hello Lily05,

    I didn’t miss the Skeeter reference. I chose not to answer. Black people are allowed to do that now, you know.

    Sorry, where are my manners. For the remainder of my post I’ll just ignore the hysterics in your post because I realize you love the story. I mean, you REALLY love the story. That’s a big part of the problem with the novel, and folks reaction to it, like yourself.

    Because when the innuendo, negative idealogy and generations of demeaning depictions of the black culture are gladly accepted as “taken very seriously” in a novel that cracks jokes about the black culture at just about every turn, truly its got best seller written all over it.

    It’s no wonder then, that Ablene Cooper or those close to her filed a lawsuit.

    I look at the lawsuit as a way to make publicly known that enough is enough. That having a character with her likeness and a similar name who goes to church, yet still wonders if people think she used “black magic” to wish a venereal disease on another woman is not funny, but offensive.
    In addition, that telling someone “don’t drink coffee or you’ll turn colored” is not funny, it’s offensive.

    An it certainly doesn’t, as you say “take the injustice, wrongness, etc. very seriously.”

    And while it’s admirable to instill positive affirmations within an employer’s young child, it’s a coward who’ll ignore her best friend’s children, especially children who witness the violent, physical abuse of their mother on a daily basis.

    But of course, if that abused woman is simply the “sassy” maid stereotype, then the abuse may be easily overlooked.

    It is also the height of offense to compare brown skin to a roach, especially with more than enough images during the period segregation was legal that demeaned the black culture.

    And true enough, Ablene Cooper may not win her lawsuit. But at least the lawsuit may open a dialogue on what constitutes offensive stereotype in a minority character, versus paying homage.

    You getting all this down Lily? For as much as you “love” this novel, some of use recognize it for what it really is.
    But fear not. After seeing how bad the trailer for the movie is, I think once you see the movie you’ll realize the joke’s on ALL OF US. Because segregation is played for laughs, with the white characters as ditzy sit-com wives.

    You might do well to join the real world and take a look at the shame and courage from when segregation was at its height, unless you want to continue to wallow in denial and wax nostalgic over the pages of The Help:
    http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/wall-of-shame-and-courage/

  • Unver

    I personally enjoyed the book very much, though I recognise why some commentators take issue with it. As regards the issue of dialect, however, I do think some of the comments above are a little unfair. Minny’s sections are nowhere near as ‘non-standard’ as Aibileen’s, while even Skeeter’s contain many colloquialisms and Southernisms. In other words, it isn’t as clear-cut a divide as some of the criticisms above have suggested. And while it is true that the Southern accent cuts across race, it would be naive to pretend that a black maid in the ’60s would not sound palpably different from her white employers.

  • Angela

    I’m one of the few people who did not like this book. Not only did the clumsy use of dialect bother me (white Southerners also have distinctive speech patterns; surely black maids with some education would have had better grammer) but I also was offended by the presentation of most of the maids as endlessly noble, forgiving, kind and long suffering, essential to their ditzy and inadequate employers (the book could have been subtitled ‘White Women Can’t Cope.’) Why? Do black people have to be paragons before they can be equal to whites? Only Minny had a mixture of good and not-so-good characteristics. Aibleen’s son, who was killed in an industrial accident, was a genius who was writing a book. Would his death have been any less sad if he was a not-so-genius? Perhaps this depiction of black characters is meant to be kind, but I found it stereotyped, serving to continue to show blacs as ‘the Other.’

  • http://yahoo Abby

    I just loved this book The Help. One of the best I have read in a long long time. Yes it is a page turner and so proud that Kathryn Stockett gave us this opportunity to have been able to see how Maids were really treated…
    Thank you Thank you Thank you…

    Looking forward to the movie… Yeah!!!

  • jrt

    I think some of the people posting on here ought to be ashamed of themselves. This is a person’s very first book! I’ll tell you what I got out of it. Love. That’s right. Love. And I’m not telling if I’m black or white, raised in the South or not. Where I WAS raised was in foster homes. I did not have a mother. I did not have a maid. I did not have a grandmother. And I most certainly never had anyone tell me I was smart. Or I was kind. Or I was important. When I read about Aibileen and Mae Mo iit made me cry. How I wish I would’ve had someone, anyone, tell me those things. When I got to the parts of Aibileen’s loving words I never once thought ‘Oh she’s a black maid, or Oh sheks a priveleged white child’ what I did was close my eyes and imagine Aibileen telling ME these things. I could have cared less what color or position or relationship to me Aibileen had. I loved this book because it made me feel comforted. Comforted by Aibileen’s love, comforted by Minnie being brave enough to talk back to her employers, comforted by Minnie having the courage to finally leave her abusive husband, comforted by Skeeter having the courage to get these women’s voices out there regardless of her own cconsequences as she could’ve been killed too. It is fiction and I don’t care if it was based on fact. And one of the things I particularly liked was it was women helping other women. I loved it and I long for the day when NO ONE sees color or economic standing. I long for the day when we women lift each other up no matter what and encourage each other. So instead of picking apart another woman’s very first book, who she thought no one would read, maybe instead of ragging on Ms. Stockett we should say ‘good job on writing your very first book. And whether we like it or not, Ms. Stockett YOU are important’.

  • LISA-MARIE

    I just completed this novel and I must say that I LOVED it. As an African-American woman, age 29, I believe that it was a great read and I have recommended it to many. I believe that many of you are tearing this author apart, and it is unfair. Throughout this novel, may she have left some things out, yes. Did she cover every issue that she could dealing with the segregation of black and the dealing with whites, no. What she did do was touch on what she knew. I must say she did a great job. After reading the book it makes me want to read more nonfiction to get more accurate accounts of what went in during that time. I applaud this author. Not only for the great work but the courage to publish this piece. When I read the book she does not paint a pretty picture of white folks. She does not make them seem better than anyone else. If you really read this novel you would see that African Americans are depicted as the heros in the story. The stronger ones, the more intelligent ones. Again I applaud her for this work. How many authors convey the ignorance, the selfishness, and the lack of identity to white people?
    I think that while many of us are looking at the words that are written on paper we fail to recognize some of the underlying concepts. On person mentioned the tragic death of the son. Did you ever stop to think that the tragic death was Abileens motivation to write, and to share what she wrote?
    Please take a step back and stop being so negative.
    I must add that while many people feel that this novel was stereotypic, I must say AGAIN…if you read the book, not only the words, comprehended the book, you would see that black people were not depicted in a stereotypical way, but a way that you see your mother, your grandmother and sometimes yourself… Loving, Caring, Determined, Honest, Loyal, and above ALL, Great women.
    I loved this novel, will recommend it to all.

  • http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com onyx

    The Help is a book of insults. It contains repeated, cruel slurs that were used against African Americans during segregation dressed up as amusing anecdotes.

    It’s important for readers, particularly African American readers to know this, lest they get embarassed when professing admiration for a novel that has far too many negative myths that were excuses used to block integration and equality.

    One major example:
    Blacks having diseases.
    While Kathryn Stockett has Hilly stating this in the novel, the author also uses Aibileen and Minny to resurrect this slur, as on Pg 23 both women discuss Aibileen’s “ability” to cast a venereal disease on a woman named Cocoa.

    The “cootchie spoilt as a rotten oyster” was not only offensive, but touches upon additional negative innuedo spread about blacks during the dark days of bigotry, that we not only carried diseases but in particular venereal disease.

    When Aibileen responds with “You saying people think I got the black magic?”

    Yet another often used slur. The reasoning was that blacks, no matter what faith we professed would always revert back to “black magic”. Also note that Aibileen is supposed to be a devout Christian. She should be offended by peoples assumptions, however she appears enthralled by the possibility, thus showing how backwards both she and Minny are, causing the reader to chuckle. Which is what Stockett did when she took her show on the road and read Minny’s part in a “pseudo” black voice (video on You Tube).

    A few other myths the book includes are the “no account” black males being absentee fathers. Again Stockett uses her black characters to resurrect these slights. Minny states “Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump. . .” which is an uncalled for sociological opinion, and one that showed Stockett was playing favorites. No white male lead character is called anything similar. Not even Stuart, who treats Skeeter shabbily. Or Constantine’s father, who has several bi-racial children out of wedlock with her mother.

    These males are given a pass even though they practiced segregation. Stockett makes a point to add a twist, telling the readers that either “he’s too honest” (speaking of her father, Carlton Phelan) or “he is a good man” (speaking of Stuart) even Senator Stoolie Whitworth is given a pass, as Stockett portrays him as a conflicted man only doing the will of his constiuents, while he’s really a closet liberal.

    No such “twists” are granted to the black males like Connor (absentee father who beds and abandons Constantine) or Minny’s father, who like Clyde, Aibileen’s ex is called “no account” and then there’s the brute character, Leroy, who Stockett uses to show just how slow of mind the character is when he utters the line “You don’t get tired, not till the tenth month” to his pregnant wife Minny, even though this is their sixth child.

    And speaking of children, while Minny’s daughter Kindra is only five when the novel begins, Stockett plays favorites even with the littlest members of her book. Kindra is the “bratty black kid with attitude” as Minny hollers and unfairly brands her youngest child. Even Aibileen, who makes it her mission to instill positive affirmations in Mae Mobley has no scenes where she coddles or nurtures Minny’s youngest, and that’s a shame since Kindra is between a rock and a hard place (her sharp tongued mother and abusive father)

    And while Minny is an abused woman, because she’s the “sassy” maid stereotype, she behaves contrary to all known medical data on someone subjected to almost daily physical violence, even enlisted to protect Celia, with a knife no less, while carrying her sixth child.

    Non fiction books which do a far better job than The Help with less caricature and real testimonials are “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabelle Wilkerson and “At the Dark End of The Street” by Danielle McGuire.

  • http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com onyx

    For those who want more proof that Stockett’s novel (unwittingly I believe) contains demeaning and repeated tales that some bigots used as a means to block equality and integration, I’ve provided links, pictures and excerpts on this post:

    http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/06/18/demeaning-ideology-in-the-help/

    It’s important to understand Stockett putting this ideology in the mouths of her black characters is nothing new. There have been other celebrated literary novels where white authors took on a black voice and created characters who either expressed a self loathing against their race (The Confessions of Nat Turner, by Pulitzer prize winner William Styron) and used the image of the large, dark, thick dialected black character as either a docile, loyal follower of the main white protag (Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst’s character of Delilah) or the sassy, mouthy, grumpy maid whose comedic quips endear him/her to readers with their blunt observations, sometimes aimed at their own culture (Mammy from Gone With The Wind. In the Help that character is Minny)

  • PhyLinda

    PhyLinda says
    July 29, 2011
    I haven’t read the book, but I was at the Theater this pass Wed, at the NAACP event. I saw the movie, and I lOVED IT. I didn’t get a chance to stay for the Q&A; sorry about that.I don’t know who wrote the screenplay, but I wondered why you weren’t there to take a bow as the book writer before the movie started. Again, I take my hat off to you, I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m a book, and screenplay writer myself. I wish you all the success in the world, and God bless.

  • Ozzi

    Then I guess Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and Harper Lee should have kept their mouths shut and found another occupation.

    Some people should just stay away from FICTION.

  • Pam

    Some of you people obviously did NOT grow up in the deep South during the 60’s. I am white and I did. I heard the accent and the movie portrayed it accurately (still lingers in some – just heard it today). I’ve heard the mispronounced words, among blacks and whites, both. When I grew up not a white or black person I knew said “fornication” correctly. They all said “forniFIcation.” I’ve seen so much of what was portrayed in the movie with the exception of the rich elites because I never knew any.

    My parents told me that coffee would stunt your growth. Should short people be offended by that?

    It’s ironic to read in this column that some of you who are black would be offended by the movie (didn’t read the book yet…only commenting on the movie) because when we left I told my husband that my white parents (in their 80’s) would be very offended by that movie because they would refuse to believe that whites treated black people that way. Every point didn’t have to be exactly accurate nor completely free of demeaning comments about white or black for the point to be made. I cried at this movie just like I do every time I visit our local civil rights museum because I know how mistreated the blacks were treated.

  • Bee

    Most of the website reviews I’ve seen for this novel seem to focus on a debate as to whether or not the author is…., I guess “qualified” would be the word, to write a work of fiction in which she creates a voice for two main characters who are black maids of the 60’s, when she herself is not black, or a maid, etc.. Whether she was qualified or not, I enjoyed this book. Of course, I also really enjoyed “Watership Down”, even though author Richard Adams is not, and never was, a rabbit.

  • http://wwwcalitreview Bob

    I enjoyed the book very much. I am tempted to accept the opinions of the people that grew up in the South during that period as the most valid. I was born in 1930 in Los Angeles, CA and raised there. My family was more or less in the socio/economic class depicted here. I would say that the relationships shown here between the white women and our “colored” help was right on. The accent used in the book was a little stronger that that used by our help but was still true to my memory. I have long since learned that people who have lived through certain times very often know things about those times that others trying to look backwards from today do not. As a matter of such detail I would like to comment on Cheryl’s mentioning the blue eyes in the photo and how that could not have been as color photography had not yet been invented. I have “color” photos of myself at age three through five and one of my grandmother. It was very common in those days to have photos of family members “colorised”. This was done by hand and came out looking very realistic. They didn’t look painted at all.

  • http://acriticalreviewofthelp.wordpress.com Onyx

    The Help controversy wasn’t simply that the African American characters had a thick dialect, but that the white characters were practically devoid of one.

    Skeeter, Hilly, Stuart, and the like spoke as if they were from the North in many of the scenes. But what Stockett did isn’t anything new. Many white writers, in an attempt to show how races differ use dialect to achieve this.

    The problem occurs when the minority character winds up being a comedic foil because their language skills read so poorly.

    In many sections of The Help, that’s what happens with the maids.

    Stockett admitted she intended to put “different” voices on the page in this interview:

    “My mother and stepmother speak very properly. I really enjoyed putting two very different voices on the page together. I don’t think I’d be capable of writing it any differently.”

    http://www.atlantamagazine.com/books/Story.aspx?id=1271657

    At least the audio version of the book and the film don’t have the white characters devoid of a regional accent (which would sound rather strange on screen). For example, Hilly screams “You are FARD” at Minny.

    The other problem isn’t just how the black characters say things, but what they say. The movie faces the same criticism the book did, with characters uttering stereotypical lines like this:

    “Minny don’t burn no chicken” and “Fried chicken tend to make you feel better about life” “You is kind, you is smart, you is im-po-tent”

    It’s throwback dialogue. Lines similar to Prissy’s “I don’t know nothing about birthin’ no babies” or TV’s “What you talking ’bout Willis?”

    When blacks are saddled with this type of cringe worthy dialogue and dialect, it harkens back to the days of Amos n’ Andy, where these beloved caricatures of African Americans were also sworn to be “authentic”

  • celine

    i had a friend who moved to the south in the era of the book. she was appalled at the wages paid. she offered to pay her help two or three times the going rate. the woman refused the money saying it would mark her and cause her to be ostracized. she told me the black “help (both men AND women) were not treated nicely at all. she and her husband lasted a year and then, quickly, moved back north.

    i loved the book. i read it for what “it was”. not for verbiage, spelling, speech or whatever. the naysayers need to “get a life”. why oh why cannot you admit the blacks were been treated very very shabbily “back then”?

    read the book for what it is. a commentary of how superior some white folks think they were then. perhaps still. i have one question: do you all think heaven is segregated? end of commentary here.

  • Nettie

    What I find most appalling is the intellectual snobbery espoused by almost every commenter (kudos to the others, though).
    And I can’t help but comment on the snob near the beginning who made jabs about the author’s use of “alright”, while spelling “consistent” as “consistant”. The irony is rich, almost as rich as the snobbery oozing forth from so many here. (Level of education does not reflect one’s intelligence, nor does it cure a small mind.)
    The book was well-written and was a good, though-provoking, moving read. Period. And it does accurately portray the dialect of many Southerners— a yankee who claims to have spent a few years living in the South has no ability to accurately assess our richly varied dialect(s), and sounds foolish doing so.

  • http://att.net Larry

    The book The Help is in real need of help. Kathry Stockett could have done a better job with The Help only if she had spent some time among the African American people of Charleston or Beaufort SC or maybe even Savannah Ga. In other words, what she wrote was nowhere close to the dialect of the “Colored” folks of the 1950’s or 60’s.

    She needed an editor with “geechee” roots if she wanted to speak the language of the old South and to write a book about it. The real book for example should have included writting similar to the following: da book bees ok, but E ain’t nut’n close ta da real ting.

    The above example was not taken from The Help, but its written to show how most of the maids would have spoken during this time of poorly paid servitude.

  • http://www.luther.edu Val Littlewolf Heike

    The Help
    I read this book and at times laughed right out loud. The Help was a book we were told to read for African American Women’s History. I just yesterday turned to the last page and was nearly annoyed to see that a book written in the voice of the old south was a white girl. Its the trailer that delighted me as well as certain places within the written word. After I have finished with the book I will give the book to my kid sister who at 51 should learn a thing or two. I found that years ago I was blessed to have had an irreverent true as true gold woman in my life that if my Darlene were to put pen to paper she with the tales of her family could have written circles around the author of the Help. I hope to see the movie soon.

  • Ritchie

    Wow. What a powerful thread. I have seen the movie, am going to read the book, and I am a white male who grew up in the North in the 60’s.
    It is always interesting to see people read other’s thoughts, opinions, and research, and miss the point. Forget references to other historical, emotional events, (holocaust etc.) if you can’t get the sense of what this book does- imagine reading a book about YOUR family, in which the author has some feel for your Dad, but gets your Mom COMPLETELY wrong. Keep in mind, it’s a work of fiction, but it uses your Mom’s name, her hometown, etc., and you feel betrayed and violated reading those pages. Don’t you feel qualified to comment, meaningfully, on that book? I THINK (but cannot know) that that is the sense that some of the posters are trying to achieve, here.
    Yes, it’s fiction, yes, KS has free speech, but if an author writes about a period of history that is so powerfully emotional for a certain group of people, and doesn’t research it or get it accurately on paper, she should absolutely be called on the carpet for it.
    If KS had written a little story of her rememberances of her relationship with HER maid only, it would be hard to judge this harshly. But she wrote about an entire class of people (African American maids),a real town and people without seeming (my opinion reading the various posts) to get the important things right.
    By the way, many of the more agressive pro book & author posts don’t seem to have read the references and links posted by critics. Please go back & read the WORDS in the posts, once you’ve calmed own, and check the references and the links. You may change your thoughts. I am stunned at the work of Peggy Macintosh named in an early post, all I had to do was google her name and “knapsack”, and found a concept I had no idea about- just proving I don’t know as much about race as I thought. Very eye opening.
    I thank everyone for helping me improve my understanding of the book, especially the ones who were thoughtful and scholarly in their posts. I can read it with a little less ignorance and some idea of other perspectives.

  • http://innerstrength100.sitemoxie.com/ Timothy Hillian

    This a great book to read but an even greater movie to see

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