Tuesday, July 19, 2011

REVIEW: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

 Skeeter Phelan has just returned home from college.  She dreams of a life as a journalist but her mother wishes for her to get married.  It is 1962 in Mississippi and college education or no, that is what ladies do.  Aibileen is the black maid of Skeeter's friend Elizabeth.  Having lost her son in an accident, she devotes herself to Elizabeth's child Mae Mobley even though she knows things may one day change.  Aibileen's best friend Minny cannot seem to keep a job because of her mouth but is the best cook in town. They are three different women but are all chafing against the social confines of their time-Skeeter because she doesn't want the same life her friends have and Aibileen and Minny because they are tired of being treated as inferior to the people they work for.  Together they embark on a dangerous project that will challenge the conventions of the time they live in.

Everyone I know that has read this book has raved about it and I can see why. The story is engaging and I felt a genuine interest in what happened to these characters. When Skeeter returns home from college she settles into a life of bridge with the ladies, fund raising on local committees, and encounters the “us and them” mentality of the time in regards to the black maids that serve in their households and raise their children. In the rural south of the 1960’s it is perfectly acceptable for the maids to raise the children, clean the house, and cook all the meals but not share the same table or the same bathroom as their employers. Aibileen is employed by Miss Elizabeth and is currently raising her daughter Mae Mobley, her 17th white child. Her best friend Minny works for Miss Hilly Holbrook, the town Queen Bee-until a certain incident leads to her firing. Skeeter wishes she could change things for Aibileen, Minny and the other maids in Jackson but doesn’t know how until she hits upon the idea to write the accounts of these women for a book. Reluctant at first because it could mean dire consequences for themselves and their families, Aibileen and Minny finally agree to participate in Skeeter’s project and 10 other maids reluctantly follow suit. This book felt like a roller coaster to me. I was elated at the small triumphs made with the book and fearful that things would turn out badly for one of these characters whom I became quite attached to.

I think that it is the mark of a good writer when they can get a reader emotionally invested in a story, especially one which the reader has zero background with. There have been many differing opinions on the accuracy of this novel. Did the author get the dialect right? Did she play with history too much? There are others that felt that waving away these concerns because the novel is “just fiction” diminishes the history behind it. I loved the story Stockett crafted here and I was really rooting for Aibileen, Minny and the other maids who were willing to take this tremendous risk to bring their stories to light. I have to say though, that I partially agree with the dissenters. I was born 20 years after this novel takes place. I have never lived in the Deep South. Having never really had experiences like those described in the book, I still had the feeling throughout the entire novel that even given the most horrible events in this book, Stockett was giving a sanitized version of what really occurred in 1960’s Mississippi. It kind of reminded me of a little kid showing you his room was almost cleaned up and there were a few items left on the floor to make it dirty and then you open the closet door and all kinds of garbage falls out. I felt the author was showing me the room and keeping me from the closet. Still, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good story because it was very good and it is the characters that make it so. I just want to forewarn those that are looking for a true depiction of race relations in the south in the 60’s, this is probably not it.

I am excited to see this book come to the big screen next month. I think they’ve done some spot on casting and will be interested to see if my thoughts differ once I see the characters brought to life.

 This book is from my own personal library


  1. So glad you enjoyed this! I listened to the audio production of it and was floored - it is truly an experience and I would recommend to anyone who has read the book to listen to the audio as well. The way it's written really lends itself to an unbelievable listening experience. Even the actor for the character of Minny in the audio will also play her on the big screen as well!

  2. I've been on the fence about this, between all the buzz (I tend to avoid major popular novels) and the critique, but I appreciate your review because you highlight some of the things I care about/need in a novel.

  3. I have to say I agree with you - I enjoyed this book a lot, it is a great story, but I did feel that it was a sanitised kind of version. I thought there wasn't a lot of emotional truth to the voices of the black women. To me it really read like a white woman who has no real experience of the internal workings of a black woman trying to write what she thinks it must have been like. I'm not a black woman so I don't know what it must be either, but I found myself thinking that they must have been more angry, more hurt, more disgusted etc with the way they were treated.

  4. I loved this on audio, one of the best I've listened to with three different voices for Minnie, Aibileen and Skeeter. Great book that makes you think, hope the movie does it justice!

  5. I included your book review as a link to my movie review... hope that is okay