Book Review: The Help

Have any of you read The Help by Kathryn Stockett?  I recently finished it and though I really liked the book on its own, I started liking it even more after reading the author’s note and reviews.  I’m fascinated by the ongoing debate this book has started about racial etiquette in writing.

Stockett, was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the setting of her fiction novel.  She and her siblings were raised by black help, and she felt the closest to her nanny, Demetrie.  Stockett’s nanny never had any children of her own, but referred to the Stockett family children as hers.  It was the nagging wonder of what happened to Demetrie and how did she feel working for a white family that pushed Stockett to write this book.

I love dipping into author’s research behind their books (need I remind you just how far I go, see here and here).  Other than her personal account, Stockett says she did interview one white woman and her maid who were together during the civil rights movement.  Their perspectives, she said, were interesting because the white woman’s fondest memory of her maid involved the pralines she would make, while her maid remembers working for her at the time of Medgar Evers‘ assassination and being worried she would lose her job if her employer turned the TV on to see her children at the protests.

Author Kathryn Stockett

Stockett’s author website only provides the basic info, but her interview with TIME magazine is fascinating.  She began writing The Help the day after September 11th.  She was living in New York City and the phones were all down, she couldn’t call anyone to tell them she was ok.  She started writing in a voice that felt like home.  That voice based on Demetrie, according to Stockett, became the leading character Aibileen in her novel.  When the need for Aibileen to speak up in a way that wasn’t true to her nature arose, she created the second key maid character, Minny.

Now, Stockett has appeared rather passive in her later interviews on the book’s success and how it depicts racial segregation in the 1960’s south.  I thought it was very honest of her to admit her feelings about the criticism of her novel that is happening since the novel has gone widespread through book clubs and reviews.

I wonder, Was this really my story to tell? On the other hand, I just wanted the story to be told. But the truth is that I didn’t think anybody was going to read it. Had I known it was going to be so widely disseminated I probably wouldn’t have written it in the type of language that I did.

But the story goes deeper.  Stockett is now in the middle of a lawsuit with her brother’s maid, a woman named Ablene Cooper.  She says the character Aibileen Clark is based on her, and she was specifically told by Stockett that her likeness and self would not appear in the book.  ABC news was unable to get the author’s comments on this matter.  Her father was interviewed and though he claims neutrality between his children, he doesn’t think Ablene Cooper will win and that this media stir-fry will only up book sales for Stockett.  Whether the claim is true or not, some critics have brandished Stockett for trying to write from the voice of a black woman in the 1960’s.
Who’s right?  Stockett is now in the process of writing her second novel, and she says she is looking at it through entirely different eyes.
It’s a scary process. I sit in my little office and I feel like I’ve got all my readers staring at me. The first book you write because of the way it makes you feel. The second one you can’t help but wonder how it’s going to make the reader feel. That’s something I’d never thought about before.

The book is soon to be released as a movie starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer.  Set to come out this month, I’m sure people will flock to the theaters to see what all the buzz is about.  I myself am planning to see it.  The trailer seems to depict a very comical side of the book, and I’m interested to see how they do include the more saddening aspects, such as what was happening in history with Jim Crow laws and civil rights protests.
Having read the book and delved into the arguments that surround these characters and their author, I say it’s a great piece of fiction.  By writing from the perspective of three characters, Stockett gave depth to the story.  And had she attempted to tell this story from only the perspective of the one white girl in Jackson who thought something needed to be done, it would’ve been just that, the story of one white girl who thought something needed to be done.  It was Aibileen’s story that drew me in, but I’m smart enough as a reader to know it’s a piece of fiction.  I wouldn’t presume to say this is how all black maids felt. I think it’s inevitable that this argument happened, but are we nitpicking the dialogue to overshadow the true message?  I don’t know.
Have you read The Help?  Have you read other works where the author writes in a voice or race different than their own?  How important is it to have researched your characters when you’re writing about a historical time?  Did Stockett do that well enough?  What do you think?

20 responses

  1. I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now! MUST do so before seeing the movie, though it looks like it’ll be a good one 🙂

    1. I highly recommend it. It is a great piece of fiction. It’s full of touching moments and some very unusual stories.

  2. I think as authors it’s our job to try and place ourselves in the position of someone else- even if that person is of a different sex, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Books are about ideas and perspectives and lives. It sounds like a great book. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I have to ask then, would you feel the same way if someone was writing about you and your mannerisms and the way you talked? I can understand the arguments, because if I put myself in Ablene’s shoes, I would analyzing every word for meaning too.

      I agree as writers we should push ourselves beyond boundaries, but how do we earn the right to depict someone who identifies as different from us for any of the above classisms you named?

  3. Great review, Jess. I haven’t read it yet but between your review and the dissection of it that Larry Brooks did over the past month or so, it is definitely on my “to read” list.

    Thanks 🙂

    1. I haven’t seen this, what did Larry B have to say?

  4. Jess, your review has convinced me to buy this book! I believe that a work of fiction knows no bounds when it comes to the choice of voice the writer makes. Why shouldn’t she have written in the voice of a black maid? It’s a story! It’s critically important to research enough to make the characters, their language and setting believeable. Downloading to my Kindle now!

    1. I’ll be curious to hear what you think after you’ve read it!

  5. I’ve heard of the book…your review makes me want to read it!

    1. I’ve had a slew of primarily women’s literature in my reviews, but I hope you do read it. I also promise to get some more neutral titles on here. Grayson by Lynne Cox will be a good one, as will The Celestine Prophecy, but you’ll hear about that in September. I’m waiting for the book club discussion on that one, think it’s gonna be great!

  6. What a Fantastic post! I loved THE HELP – it stressed me out and kept me on the edge and I loved it. The characters really sang to me and enjoyed the adventure of reading it.

    Thank you for all your links to Stockett’s interviews, etc. You are phenomenal! I bookmarked your page and I can’t wait to get a chance to read them all. So happy I found your blog!

    1. Thank you for the lovely compliments Brenda. I’m going to try to do at least two book reviews a month and I love diving into the author’s background and how they did their research. If you’ve got a book suggestion for me, let me know what you’d like to see!

  7. When it comes to telling a fictional story, we story-tellers can be anyone, anything, anywhere. We let our imaginations travel and guide readers on our journeys. I have not yet read The Help, but from your review, and the raves I’ve heard from other readers, Kathryn Stockett did just that…took her readers on a journey through her imagination.

    Awesome review!

    1. Thanks for your interest, Kate. Let me know what your friends say about the lawsuit debate. I do tend to believe we write best what we know, but if Stockett did use Ablene’s persona as a character sketch for Aibileen, I don’t think she should get money for it. It’s still mostly fiction. It’s set in a totally different time period. Regardless, I did really enjoy the book. I look forward to more thoughts on it from other readers!

  8. No. Not really. But I was curious with the story. It seems interesting enough.

  9. Mark Twain wrote Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer about the ghost of antebellum South, and we read his account of life around the mississippi in both white and black voices. Richard Wright did the same thing in 1945 with his autobiograhpy “Black Boy”. I grew up in the South in the 60s and I find Stockett’s voice very credible. I figure I am about the same age as baby girl, who looked about 4 in 1962. Life in the US had already changed dramatically and the deep south of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia had just not caught up yet. Southerners have a deep pride in their heritage, and the fight for equality brought out southern heroes of many colors. I think Stockett is another fine southern voice that underlines the fact that being southern does not make you a racist, and the south has produced many fine people of all colors.

    1. I really appreciate your weighing in on the topic and speaking to it with your background of growing up during that time period. You must have seen and heard some amazing and tragic stories, but then I guess, we all have in our ages. I agree with you, that regardless where Stockett pulled her information from, she was trying to tell this story as its never been told, from the help’s point of view. You said you were the same age as Baby Girl at that time, did you grow up with a black maid/nanny? What was your experience?

  10. I grew up in the Dallas area in Texas. During the early 60s, my mom and my aunts usually “shared” a maid. Mary Ruth would come to our house 2 mornings a week, and to another aunt’s house 2 mornings, and to another aunt’s house every afternoon and a full day on Wednesday. My mother kept a very clean house – your character and value as a wife was judged by how clean and well kept your house and children were. Mary Ruth, therefore, didn’t have all the cleaning, but she mopped all the floors, ironed, and usually made pie crusts and had them ready. If my mom planned to entertain over the weekend, Mary Ruth would prepare any special desserts – homemade banana puddings, pie crusts, and then my mom would fill them, homemade bread. She was a wonderful cook, but she didn’t cook any of our dinners since she worked at our house in the mornings.

    It was not unusual for me to see her or be kept by her at my house,or any of my aunts’ houses during the week. I was 23 before I realized you could have friends that were not your cousins.

    Mary Ruth wore her uniform and always carried a large satchel. I never knew what she carried in there.

    We were not on a bus route, and when she was picked up, a car would come and it would be full of women dressed in their uniforms, and driven by an older man.

    I was born in 1957 – and I remember Mary Ruth up until I was in junior high – probably 1968-70. After that, we got a “cleaning lady” who came during the school day and I never saw her.
    Floors were mopped, but there was no more pie.

    At this time in Dallas, there was “block busting” where a house in a white neighborhood would be sold to a black family, and then all the houses would go up for sale at one time. Whole blocks. A neigbhorhood would completely change from a white to black neighborhood in less than 6 months.

    I remember the day kennedy was shot. I was 5 and my mom picked me up at kindergarten and we went to my aunt’s house. All my aunts, uncles, cousins, we all congregated at my aunt’s house and I had never seen my dad and uncles so upset. We ate sandwiches for dinner. I had never been fed a sandwich for dinner before. I didn’t go to school the rest of the week. Dallas was shut down tighter than a clown’s hatband.

    My husband is from Kansas City Kansas and we have had lots of conversations about the south and the nations’ preceived notions about the south. Stockett has the chops to bring the subtle southern life to the surface. I saw moments from my childhood flash on the screen, but they just left off my mother’s dire warning….”NOKD, honey” – which meant “Not Our Kind”. I bet Stockett would know what that meant.

    The 60s and 70s weren’t as much fun as TV makes us think.

    Thank you,

    1. Thank you, Cindy! I am honored to hear your story about growing up in Texas during segregation. Thank you so much for sharing it with me. I plan to share your words with my mother too, who is a bit older than you, I know she’ll be interested as well.

  11. […] with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.  I read the book last month and shared my book review here.  Then this past weekend I went to see the film with my mumsy, who has also read the book.  […]

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