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Book: The Help

December 2, 2010
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In Jackson, Mississippi in the mid-1960s, there was a war going on. Although slavery of course had been abolished, still an African-American person living in Jackson (and much of the South) had few options. You could work for white families, or you could live on the dangerous edges of “society” and risk life and limb trying to work for equality.

Miss Skeeter, a young white woman raised with all the privileges of her status, is starting to open her eyes and see the inequality, injustices, and dangerousness of the times. Her friends at the social club spend their time raising money for the starving children of Africa while at the same time launching a campaign for every white house to have a separate bathroom for “the help” — to protect everyone from mixing diseases, of course.

Skeeter, having been raised by a black maid (as all her friends had been as well), started to wonder what she could do to make a difference — any kind of positive difference in this incredibly tense and dangerous time.

She gets the idea to write a book with the help of black maids. To tell their stories of what it’s *really* like to work for white families — the good, the bad, the ugly. A secret partnership is formed, and the tension grows as the lives and livelihoods of the maids become increasingly threatened.

Will the book get published? Will anyone die, like that man down the street who was shot? Be blinded like that lawn boy, for using the wrong bathroom? Will the maids be fired, beaten, lynched? Will Skeeter be ostracized or worse? Will she ever find a man to marry?

Sigh.

I admit, I didn’t know much about this book when it was announced that it was this month’s pick for my bookclub. But I knew it was a huge bestseller, and I knew it had something to do with maids or hired help of some kind, and I knew there was something about its author which was controversial. I had no idea it was about 1960s civil rights or that the author was a white woman, who had been raised by her family’s black hired help. I also knew that I didn’t really want to read it.

Still, I have to admit that it sucked me in. The story was interesting, the struggles of the women were compelling, and the final question and tension was really powerful. I stayed up late to finish it, all the time having a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach.

But I had a lot of criticisms of the book. I felt manipulated by it. I really felt like it was manufactured to be a bookclub discussion book, like it was written with movie rights in mind. “I’ll bring up *this* point here and illustrate it like this, and then I’ll show this injustice *here* and that should get a reaction, and then let’s slant this angle like *this* and I bet that will get everyone’s panties in a twist. Controversy always sells books.” While I liked it, and enjoyed the characters, I felt like it was borderline chicklit masquerading as a Serious Novel about Serious Things. The feeling of manipulation left me slightly resentful that I had ended up liking the book.

Bookclub members echoed this feeling to varying degrees. Everyone liked the book and enjoyed reading it, but most people felt slightly disappointed in the book itself. It’s a matter of execution — the book was simply not quite up to snuff. We made the comparison to The Red Tent, another bookclub book which we all enjoyed, but were left with the feeling that in different hands, it could have been so much better. It wasn’t bad, it was just somewhat fluffier than I’d have preferred.

I will say that the discussion about race and inequities was passionate and interesting. One of our members is English and did not grow up with the history of slavery and all the civil rights stuff, so she found the book illuminating: “OHhhh, THAT’S why all this race stuff in America is such a big deal.” But she also voiced the opinion that it’s frustrating for a non-American to have a discussion about any of this because the political correctness police get in the way of talking about things. You can’t have a decent discussion about race and poverty and slavery reparations because everyone is so emotional about the entire issue. I agreed with her: it’s an incredibly painful, shame-filled topic for most Americans and we are all left with varying feelings of shame, outrage, guilt, and helplessness.

There was also some discussion about whether or not it mattered that the author was a white woman. The book comes from varying points of view, so at times she writes from the point of view of the black maids, and uses their vernacular. Is this automatically offensive? There was disagreement among the group. I and a few other people were of the opinion that while it certainly is something to consider, the book is the final piece of art and it should be judged on its own merit (and in this case, we found it slightly lacking). A comparison to Eminem, a white guy who routinely wins hip-hop awards, was drawn. When does talent and merit supersede race and culture? Does it ever? Can we ever move beyond identity politics? Should we? Much discussion about this.

I have to make a confession: I forgot that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by a white woman. My point was that The Help is not as good as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, regardless of who wrote it. The fact that it was written by a white woman makes my point even moreso, I think. The book must be judged on its own. Regardless of your background, if you write a fantastic novel, your own personal circumstances may or may not be factored into the book’s success. Each reader must decide for his or her own self whether they want to factor in the author’s particulars when they judge a book. I tend not to do this. I rarely research authors or pay any attention to race, names, culture. I am simply interested in their art: the book.

Anyway. It was a decent book, but I feel that even though it got fairly tense and scary at times, I am left with the feeling that it was too sweet. Like Americanized Chinese food. You think you’re getting the real thing, but the darker, smokier, less-sweet flavor of something genuine is not there. I also tend not to like “girl makes good” stories, although I’m sure I’m contradicting myself somehow in saying that. There was just something so sunny about this book, despite it being rather dark in subject matter. I found that a little offputting. I’m not sure why I’m left with this impression. Maybe it’s because to some degree, the characters are relatively simple. There’s a good heroine, whose faults are relatively minor. There is a villainess, who is pretty horrible. There are victims, who are for the most part blameless. There’s a wooden golden-boy boyfriend who isn’t good enough for our ugly duckling. There’s a conflict with our heroine’s mother, which makes her question everything she knows. It’s all sort of pat, expected. I was not surprised by any character, save one. I liked the backwoods floozy who shows up to the fundraiser drunk. I liked her a lot.

However, one member made an excellent point that this book illustrated the many complexities of women’s friendships very well. One of the worst threats one woman can make to the other is, “I won’t be your friend anymore.” And why is that? Even when the “friend” is a no-good racist bitch?

Anyway. I still feel slightly miffed that I read this because of the feeling I had of being manipulated, but it wasn’t a terrible book and the bookclub discussion was great… just as the author intended. So. There we are.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. D'Arcy permalink
    December 2, 2010 3:01 pm

    I actually do remember seeing this book somewhere and almost buying it. I guess American civil rights sell in Canada, too.

    Love, the book club foreign mascot 🙂

    • December 3, 2010 10:24 am

      It was a good *story* even if you don’t care about American civil rights…

  2. December 2, 2010 6:15 pm

    i think of this book as a Target Book. Meaning, it’s gotten so popular and housewives everywhere are reading it so they sell it at Target, and it’s bought by people whose main source for literature is the Target book section. Which isnt a bad thing necessarily (i’ve bought books there many times and im a housewife), but I think if that’s all you ever read then you arent going to be very well rounded.

    anyway, i’d probably not read this one. i dont seek out books about racial tension. i just end up feeling bad, sad, and powerless. that being said, i dont think it matters that the author is white, especially considering the fact that she was raised around black folks. i think the fact that she had experiences that inspired her to write the book gives her credibility. the color of her skin doesnt matter.

    (i love how you tied in your book club discussion. it made me feel as if i was almost there!)

    • December 3, 2010 10:25 am

      It is *TOTALLY* a Target book! That’s exactly what it is.

      You know, even for all my criticism, it was a good story and I stayed up really late to finish it, so it’s not like it was *bad* — it just wasn’t quite as good as it wanted to be. It had an uplifting ending, about which I’m not sure how I feel.

  3. December 3, 2010 3:30 am

    It seems like a lot of books are being written just for discussion. The plot sounds promising, but the motivation doesn’t sound too appealing.

    • December 3, 2010 10:26 am

      The sort of maddening thing about it was that we all liked the book in spite of everything.

  4. December 3, 2010 7:37 am

    I’ve been on the fence about this one and now, thanks to you I have finally decided I will n ot read it. Even if it is a good read the fact that you felt manipulated, that blows it for me. There are few things I dislike more about a book than feeling manipulated.

    • December 3, 2010 10:27 am

      It *is* a good read, but I was left with a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I would say that if this book comes to you and you’re feeling generous, give it a try. I liked it, in spite of its failings. Although that feeling of being manipulated really did kind of bother me.

  5. December 3, 2010 2:28 pm

    >>But I had a lot of criticisms of the book. I felt manipulated by it. I really felt like it was manufactured to be a bookclub discussion book, like it was written with movie rights in mind. “I’ll bring up *this* point here and illustrate it like this, and then I’ll show this injustice *here* and that should get a reaction, and then let’s slant this angle like *this* and I bet that will get everyone’s panties in a twist. Controversy always sells books.”

    This is exactly what I suspected, and why I’ve decided not to read it. I never get along with books like this (like, say, Poisonwood Bible or The Kite Runner).

    • December 3, 2010 2:56 pm

      So funny that you mention those two books in particular. I *loved* The Poisonwood Bible but I can really see why you would put it in this category. I also read The Kite Runner and bawled through the entire last half.

      I wouldn’t put this book in the same *class* as those two because I thought those two in particular were very good books, although yeah, engineered to make you cry. But I felt that The Help was engineered to be a bookclub book, or, as Tammie said, a Target book, which isn’t any better. It borders on chicklit which I think it sort of a crime against literature anyway. 🙂

  6. December 3, 2010 3:38 pm

    Great review and I’m loving the comments.

    I don’t think the race of the author matters. She has background knowledge that lends to her work. I think people nowadays are *so* hypersensitive about racial issues and offending others that it creates a whole new problem. For instance, the discussion of a white woman writing from the point of view of a black person and using their vernacular: why should that be offensive? It’s not making fun…it just is. It’s true. Southern black people from that era often did have their own vernacular. It wouldn’t be realistic otherwise.

    It would be a shame if writers could only touch on topics in which they had experience or that were considered safe. I think racial tensions will always remain if people continue to tiptoe around things. People are so fearful to discuss things that it seems like nothing gets discussed.

    Not sure if I’d read this. But if it’s aim was to bring about discussion, it succeeded. I just commented more on a book I’ve yet to read than I thought possible.

  7. December 3, 2010 10:55 pm

    I didn’t find the book offensive because of the author’s personal history. Plus, authors of all races write about stuff, that’s what they do. Can only black authors write about or from the perspective of a black person? Can only female authors write from the female perspective?

    I feel the same way you did about being sucked in tho: it really was a page turner but the ending left me a little deflated.

    Thanks for the review!

    • December 4, 2010 8:57 am

      I agree — an author’s race doesn’t really matter. A book can be successful regardless of the author’s personal history. We had a big discussion about this at bookclub.
      Yes — it was definitely a page-turner towards the end!!

  8. December 4, 2010 8:31 am

    Ok, I had to actually go back and reread my review of the book from last year…unfortunately it was one for the other outlet so the word count is severely limited, and I gave it an overall good review without pointing out the bits that I found less savoury…though I’d still call it a decent read overall.

    I definitely was concerned about the author’s background, frankly, like it was a bit (metaphorically) rich for a person ingrained in the system and very literally raised within the system to write about it in such a way – almost like she was looking for atonement for her upbringing. I further thought it was obvious which of the characters she viewed herself as – Skeeter – and more than it being a blundering Mary Sue issue it struck me as somehow both seeking that atonement and also pandering to the modern sensibilities readers, many of whom would probably very self-righteously think “I would do the same thing!” without actually considering what it was like within that particular era and that particular place (i.e., modern readers, without giving it critical thinking, would probably insert their own anachronistic beliefs into the story – and that doesn’t excuse racism in the South in the 60s, I’m just saying it would have still been anachronistic.) I don’t recall feeling manipulated, but I could definitely see that I could have felt that way.

    What I liked about it though, and this was the overriding feeling that I had, was that it was a very personal and female story of civil rights. The bombings and marches and firehoses are going on around them – these were women concerned with what was, at the time and place, considered appropriately womanly things – the cooking, the raising of the children, the Junior League. (I’m not saying this is the Right Way of the World or anything like this – the book was very, very clearly in a pre-second wave feminist South and in the class of society we’re reading about, this was what was appropriate.) So yes, in a quiet way, I thought it was really meaningful how the civil rights battles were played out in a feminine-centric albeit home-based way. I don’t think I’d ever seen that before, and handled as well as it was.

    That became long, sorry! I guess I haven’t had a place yet to sort out my thoughts on it!

    • December 4, 2010 8:55 am

      Kate, you are totally right about the female version of the 60s civil rights events… that is a good point. I agree with you that the book succeeded on a number of points — it definitely wasn’t all bad by any means. We all actually liked it very much, but I think the overall impression was that it could have been so much better, and we were disappointed in that way. But, there were a number of redeeming factors and the ones you mentioned are definitely on the list!

  9. December 15, 2010 6:07 pm

    Your comments about this feeling like The Help was written to be a book club book hit upon my reasons for not getting around to this book yet. For some reason the premise keeps reminding me of The Secret Life of Bees, a book I found kind of annoying.

  10. January 4, 2011 5:04 am

    Great review; great comments here! I loved The Help and got very caught up in it. It is very good for me to read other’s thoughts like this.
    I love that TARGET classification! spot on.

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