Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Genre: POC
First Published: February 2009
Publisher: Putnam Adult
Source: Library
Challenges: 100+ Reading Challenge, Support your Local Library Reading Challenge
451 pages




On the flap
Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.


After being on hold for this book since the October of last year, it was very satisfying to hold the book that has been touted as the top read of 2009. I had once read the first page of this book, and loved it. This time, I can say the same for the entire book.

My opinion
The Help starts from the perspective of Aibileen, a black maid, who works in the house of Elizabeth Leefolt, one of Skeeter's close friends. Elizabeth is to be the host of the bridge club, in which Skeeter, Hilly, another of Skeeter's close friends, and Mrs Walters, Hilly's mother, are to play. Before soon, Hilly is insisting on separate bathrooms for the women of the household and the help, for hygiene purposes.

Minny, Hilly's maid, sasses when ever she gets irritated or angry. She strives to hold her temper in, but it never works. Soon, she has lost yet another job. To compound matters, Hilly has been bad-mouthing Minny, thereby making it hard for Minny to find another job to feed her huge family.

Skeeter has just returned home after graduation, without a job or any plan about what to do with her life. Her mother wants her to get married, but Skeeter isn't interested. She wants to write, and after much deliberation, she comes up with a very brave and controversial idea to write about.

There starts a very powerful story of three women, or rather five women in my opinion, since in addition to the three main protagonists, Hilly and Miss Celia, Minny's new employer are very crucial to the story as well. Did you ever feel when reading a book, that you had to whoop in delight or whip any character to nice manners, or cry with strong heartfelt emotions, for the sufferings of some character(s)? The Help WOW-ed me on all factors. It touched me at a deep core, leaving me to think of the book for days afterwards.

Not many good books bring every character to life, major or minor. Doing that makes a book great in my opinion. Feeling the presence of the characters around you makes their experiences all the more believable and credible. Minny, as the sass-mouth, was the one I identified with the most. I loved it that she took no crap from others. On the one hand, she was scared of the consequences, but on the other, she couldn't just sit and watch. Miss Celia, on the other hand, enjoyed being pampered, but mostly, she enjoyed having someone who spoke to her or chided her with genuine intentions rather than with a smug perspective.

Aibileen was the more mature and respected maid, whose opinions, fears and wishes have been shaped by years of experience as a housemaid - bringing up seventeen white children, watching them call her 'Mama' more often than they would call their biological mothers, seeing the looks of distrust and suspicion, even disgust on the faces of the women she waited on. Hilly's suggestion of separate bathrooms breaks some wall within her and it's quite sorrowful reading how little power these women (the help) have in their hands.

Skeeter was a perplexing character to me. It is evident from the start that she is repulsed by the racial segregation and bigotry that corrupts her friends' thoughts. She yearns to do something about it, and while in the process of determining how to begin her career, she comes up with an idea to help the black women waiting in the white households. While I found her intentions honorable, occasionally I was wondering what the whole exercise was for Skeeter. How genuinely did she feel the pain and sufferings of the black maids? How much did she empathize with them? Was the whole project primarily a literary exercise for her or a humanitarian undertaking? I was never convinced of Skeeter's position throughout the story. Although I had no doubt that she believed in the welfare of the help, it was not clear to me if her participation was passive or aggressive.

The Help gives a lucid description of the difficulties faced by the black families. There is Hilly's Home Help Sanitation project that advocates separate bathrooms for the residents of a white household and the help, reasoning that the black people carry different diseases and can endanger the lives of the people they wait on. Then there is the case of the black boy who is horribly assaulted, and blinded as a result, simply because he used a bathroom reserved for whites, when there was no board or notice beside the bathroom. In addition there are several subtle references such as when Elizabeth's daughter, Mae, plays with Aibileen's comb, and her mother insists on Mae taking her bath immediately.

It has to be told that amidst this murkiness, there are a lot of positive stories too of white women helping the black maids. Such as, one woman leaving a note before her death to her maid, thanking her for taking care of her baby. The mother of the blinded boy was given paid leave to take some leave and stay by her son. The Help is not just a recounting of hardships, it is also an expression of the good happening in times of bad. It shows how even before Martin Luther King's famous speech, white women were embracing their black maids, if not literally, at least as women who deserve equality and respect.

In addition to being a story of the relationship between the black and white women, it is also a story of mother-daughter relationships. There are several overtones of this theme throughout the book, both in the minimal recognition by babies and toddlers of their biological mothers as their true mothers, and in the relationship between Skeeter and her mother. Skeeter's initial reactions to her ailing mother broke me badly. Her increasingly weakening mother is not a perfect epitome of a woman in many respects. She holds bigot opinions against the help, and is not one to gracefully take to situations where she might be humiliated. In short, a woman who protectively guards her status in society. But she is not an evil woman. Her beliefs are something that she has been adhering to, from years of seeing and hearing the same things - an old woman's hesitancy to let go of her past, however unjustifiable. I waited for a long time for Skeeter to wake up to her mother's health deterioration. When she does, it is with a sorrow hard to bear.

Overall, this is a great book, in my opinion. The characters, the place, the events, all feel very real. And as I read the book, I couldn't help but vociferously celebrate the small successes of the human spirit, and cry in disgust at all the prejudices flying around.

Title Demystified
Before I started reading this book, I couldn't make head nor tail of what this title means. It seemed to me a weird pair of words, as if indicating a particular instance of someone help's on some matter, which probably sets the dice rolling. But after reading it, I berated myself for not guessing that The Help referred to the maids who served in the white households. So simple, yet so eloquent!

Cover Art Demystified
The book comes with a very peaceful-looking cover, that try as I might, I can't decipher it. I do have several theories, but since I am not so sure of any of them, I will refrain from guessing. I would however love to hear your analysis on the cover, so please leave me a comment!

What did you think?
Have you read this book? I'd like to know what you thought about it. Please leave your review link in the comments, or a brief opinion, if you hadn't reviewed it.

Did you love it or were you bothered by anything in or about the book?

29 comments:

Melissa said...

I haven't read this one, but it sounds so intriguing! Thank you for such a wonderful review! :)

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Wonderful review :)

Ann Elle Altman said...

What a beautiful review. You make me want to pick up this book immediately.

ann

Piyush said...

awesome .. need to read this one :)

Emidy said...

I've heard so much about this book! And it's all been positive. I must read it!

Emidy
Une Parole

brichtabooks said...

Everyone should read this book. It is so great! One thing that amazed me in the story was that the help, like Aibileen, took care of the white women's children, preparing their foods, changing their diapers, holding them and drying their tears. The white women allowed them so much access to their children, yet still somehow believed they had different diseases that only black people carried. I found this ridiculous on the part of the characters. I'm glad our society has come a long way since then, and it's shocking that it wasn't all that long ago!

Ruthann said...

This book was awesome! I read it last year and absolutely loved it. I highly recommend others to read this book. It was great and if you enjoy audio books, the audio production is fabulous.

Great review!

Ash said...

Okay okay, I will read this book! Your review has finally got me interested in reading it rather than just reading it because I think I should.

bermudaonion said...

I've had this book for a while and haven't read it yet. (Some of my friends have read my copy, though.) I'm dying to read it, too, since I lived in Mississippi in the early 1960's.

Dana said...

Great review! I agree completely about Skeeter, and I loved the character of Minny.

Stephanie said...

I thought this book was terrific, and I loved your review. I agree with you about the author's ability to bring every character -- major and minor -- to life.

Care said...

I gushed about this book here: http://wp.me/p7r47-N1
I love how you analyse the cover - this one is a mystery to me, too.

Diane said...

I read the library copy when it was first released and LOVED it, and while I'll rarely reread a book, I am planning on getting a copy for my collection.

Your review was terrific, and The title: "The Help", how simplistic but perfect (less is more)!

Jennifer G. said...

Another great review!

lifeafterjane said...

Great review. This was recommended to me the other day. Adding it to the TBR list!

stiletto storytime said...

I LOVED this book! Thanks for the great review!

Courtney
Stiletto Storytime
"Just like stilettos, reading never goes out of style"

cherylbaryl said...

I have had this on hold at the library forever too, but I decided to just go out and buy it yesterday. Sounds like a great book and you did a great review!

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Excellent review and I really loved it!

Jess said...

I absolutely loved this book and couldn't put it down!

The1stdaughter said...

What a great review! I have seen this book it seems everywhere, but had zero idea of what it was about and almost even less of a desire to read it. But with your review, I may actually enjoy reading this! Good thing too, because my book club is reading it in a couple of months!

Thanks for the review! It really helped a lot.

Amy said...

Great review! This has on my TBR list for awhile, and I can't wait to get to it!

Aarti said...

Great job on this review! I felt the same way about Skeeter. Especially at the VERY end where she seems to have a lightbulb moment about how "everyone is the same" or whatever. Um... where was that moment when you first had the idea for the book?!?!

I don't know how to interpret the cover, either. I think the two birds apart from the one bird is symbolic of Aibileen and Minny separate from Skeeter? But I don't know...

Aths said...

Melissa, Juju, Ann, Piyush, Jennifer G., Amy, stiletto storytime, Sheila, thanks!

Emidy, I hope you will read it!

brichtabooks, I agree with your comment. It's definitely interesting that the help was so much a part of the lives of the whites, but then there is the misplaced beliefs in black diseases! ::shudder::

Ruthann, second that!

Ash, :) I hope you will read it soon!

Kathy, please do read it soon! Can't wait to hear what you think of it!

Dana, Thanks! And yep, Minny is such a darling!

Stephanie, glad you loved this book. I know, it's so amazing right, how every character felt so real, down to visualizing them too!

Care, Thanks! And off to check your review! :)

Diane, you took the words out of my mouth! I may not re-read either, but I definitely want to buy a copy for myself!

lifeafterjane, you should read this! Can't wait to hear what you think!

Cheryl, hope you really enjoy the book!!

Jess, me neither!!

Danielle, ooh, you should go grab the nearest copy of The Help! It is an awesome book! Can't wait to hear your thoughts!

Aarti, yeah, that line at the end of the book was a bit bummer too. I almost felt angry that she was doing this for professional gains. I was playing with the same idea too, about the 3 birds being the 3 characters. A friend of mine brought my attention to the song, "Birds on the Wire" that was recorded in the 60s. It goes "Like a bird on a wire/Like a drunk in the midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free." I don't know, but that seems like one more good theory on the cover!

Care said...

thanks so much for commenting on my review and offering the cover analysis. I like it!

Aths said...

Care, you're welcome! :)

dancingonabladeofgrass said...

My husband is reading this book at the moment and, here in the UK, it has a different more appropriate cover I think ... the reasons for the two different covers are given here ...

http://www.artscriticatl.com/2010/05/author-appearance-kathryn-stocketts-%E2%80%9Cthe-help%E2%80%9D-americans-are-not-comfortable-talking-about-race/

Elspeth said...

This is a fantastic book! I never wanted it to end. I would recommend this book to anyone.

Athira / Aths said...

It was certainly a great book! I just loved it!

Myra Lopez said...

I sincerely hope that Kathryn Stockett writes another book. Even her
notes in the back of the book were touching and wonderfully written, a
must read!
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