Friday, August 26, 2011

6 reasons I liked The Help, and 6 reasons I didn't.

Ok, it's time for me to share more of my thoughts about the novel The Help . I was originally going to cut and paste your comments from this post and interweave my own ideas, saying what I did and didn't agree with. But then I figured that would be too much work.

So, instead I will go back to my handy bullet points. Some of my commentary is pretty plot specific. I'll try not to reveal the big secrets, but if you're planning on reading the book/seeing the movie and don't want any spoilers at all--maybe you should read this post later.

6 Things I liked about The Help:

1) The relationship between MaeMo and Aibileen. This is probably what I liked the most out of the whole book. So much love and affection going back and forth between those two.

2) Stockett did a good job of setting up a compelling story. She gives us three mysteries in the early chapters, and piqued my interest enough that I wanted to keep reading to find out what was going to happen. Like many of you, I had a hard time putting the book down and finished it in a couple of days.

3) An insider look into the subtleties of white Southern culture (at least Stockett's very narrow slice of it.) I have always been fascinated by subcultures. Like when Skeeter talked about how she wanted to buy Elizabeth a dress so she wouldn't make such crappy home-made ones. And how Elizabeth's mother always made Elizabeth take her to the most expensive restaurant in town, when she knew Elizabeth couldn't afford it. Reading The Help was like getting a glimpse into dysfunctional white family and friendship relationships.

4) This is related to #3. Stockett also gives some understanding of what being a black domestic in the South during this time might have been like. I wrote in an earlier post about how I wondered what things were like for black people on a day-to-day basis during Jim Crow. The Help gives me some idea. However, I have to say that I'm apt to rely on Stockett's take on the white people in the book much more than I am the black people. She is much more intimately familiar with the white experience, because that is the experience that she lived. That could also explain why the Maemo/Aibeleen relationship was so deep, because MaeMo is one of the characters Stockett identifies most closely with (the second being Skeeter.)

5) I liked how Skeeter gave the maids her paycheck from the newspaper while she was writing the book. But did she say where the books proceeds would go once it got published? I don't remember.

6.) I heard that Stockett got 60 rejection letters before she got this book published. Yet another important lesson in the value of perseverance; and what can happen when you don't give up on a goal that's important to you.

6 Things I didn't like about The Help:

1) Overall, I didn't think the book brought that much to the table from a literature standpoint. To me, it read like a novel that the author wrote with the intention of turning it into a movie. I don't like books like that, because they lack a lot of the things that make a book a book, ykwim? In its defense, I read mainly nonfiction. The last contemporary piece of fiction I was was The Road,which was about 20 times better than The Help. It's not about race or inequality, but I would definitely recommend The Road if you're looking for an excellent novel.

2) I felt like the main white character, Skeeter was much more multi-dimensional that the two main black characters, Minnie and Aibeleen. Like I said earlier, I think that Skeeter is the character that Stockett most closely identifies with, so it would make sense that Skeeter seemed more fleshed out as a person. I wouldn't go so far as two call Minnie and Aibeleen caricatures, but I don't think we get as much of a nuanced understanding of them as we do of Skeeter. This fits in with a pattern that I have talked about before of the tendency for white people to be the main idea, while the people of color are on the periphery.

3) I think Stockett's lack of understanding of black people came out in different plot points, some more significant than others. Like, there is a time where she has one of the maids compare her skin color with a cockroach. I really don't think this is something that a black person would do. Of course, I can't say for sure, since I don't share the same thoughts/opinions as every other black person in the world.

Also, when Skeeter decides to pull the prank on Hilly regarding the lawn, she hires two black boys to do the pranking. Given everything that Stockett has already told the reader about how much violence and terror black people are experiencing at that point in time, why would she ask two black teenagers to put themselves in danger for a childish prank?

4) The whole thing with the pie was really gross. I get that Minnie wanted to give Hilly her just deserts, but really? I didn't think that it was an appropriate reaction to Hilly's actions. But I have never found things like that humorous, and I know a lot of people do. I do have to wonder what made Stockett choose that particular form of retaliation. Interesting psychological question to ponder...

5) The whole time I was reading about Skeeter's family and where they lived I was thinking: How much does Skeeter's father Carlton pay his main farm hand? How did Carlton come to be in possession of this plantation? Who got the plantation after Calrton died? What would be the value of this land in 2011 dollars? I wonder where questions like this were on Stockett's radar.

6) A lot of people have been criticizing the book for its portrayal of another "white savior" storyline. I have to say that I didn't really see it that way. I don't think that Stockett intends for Skeeter to be the hero of the book, it is very clear that Minnie and Aibeleen do just as many heroic and virtuous things as Skeeter does. But like I said before, Skeeter in a lot of ways is the main character. She is the one who had the idea for the book, and she is the one that we see driving off into the sunset to her fancy life in New York City; while Minnie, Aibileen and the rest of the maids are left to keep maid-ing it up in Mississippi.

This is what I don't get about why people respond so strongly to this book: What are we as the readers supposed to think happened in early 1960's Mississippi as a result of the book that Skeeter wrote? From what I remember, one white woman and her maid sit down at the dining room table together. And Skeeter gets to go to the Minnie and Aibileen's church and be told how great she is. Big whoop. Hilly's still rich (but embarrassed), Skeeter's still rich and Minnie and Aibileen are still poor.

Now I know I'm starting to sound cynical. It's like, there are already so many books out there that speak to the black experience (many written by actual black people,) why are people so drawn to this one?

The answer (at least in part,) is that Stockett gives us a nice little story, with a nice little ending wrapped up in a happy bow. The bad people are bad, and the good people are good. The good white people do good things, and get love and affection from the good black people.

But it worries me thinking that a lot of white women read this book and thought something like: "I'm going to go out and tell some stories of some poor black people I know. Well, I don't actually know them, but I've seen them before and they seem pretty sad. Their stories need to be told!" It's just such an oversimplification of what we're dealing with, and it annoys me.

The reality is that these issues of race and inequality are so complex and there are so many shades of gray. It's not enough to not be a racist bee-yatch like Hilly. It's not even enough to be a do-gooder like Skeeter. And it is not enough to be the oppressed, yet proud and virtuous black sufferer, like Minnie and Aibileen. We are all much more multi-dimensional than that.

I think the fact that this book is so popular shows that many white people have a thirst for learning more about the history of race relations in this country. This is a good thing. And I know that from the theory of crop harvesting, that some people are going to read The Help and it is going to be an important step on their journey in becoming more in tune with their own racial identity; and gaining a more realistic understanding of not just the history, but the current state of affairs of race relations in this country. That is definitely something I can get behind.

But I am unsettled by the fact that many more people will read The Help and think that the mere act of reading it says something significant about them and their commitment to equality. And that the warm, fuzzy feeling that they get at the end of the book will delude them into thinking that we don't still have a long, long way to go.

I actually have more to say, but this post is already hella long. Maybe another day. But if you have any comments that you'd like to share, I'm all ears.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Point #6 why you don't like book is well said. I will not read this book for a lot of the reasons you state about the author and her intentions.

  2. I think I'll still wait for the DVD. ;)

  3. I read "The Road" over the weekend. Could not put it down. First book I've read from McCarthy. Amazing writer. Use of language is incredible.

    A very scary book. Something we all think about sometimes for the unknown future.

    Thanks so much for the tip. If you have other book suggestions, please post.

  4. This was so well balanced that I must say how much I appreciate you writing it and posing both sides. It's a critical conversation to have about this book and now you've got me wanting to read "The Road". I can't believe I have never read it.

  5. I've had a copy of The Road forever and now curse myself for not reading it!

    Overall I really liked this book. I loved the setting and the characters and became really engrossed in it.

    I do agree with you on #3 though, it struck me as kind of ridiculous when I read it.

  6. thanks for the comments on my blog, and sorry so late responding to this! so, i purposely skipped reading this particular post until i finished the book. a bit about me first (and your assumption was correct) - I was born in GA and lived there for 29 years. As in, my entire life until 4 months ago :) my entire family is from the south: parents, grandparents, & so on. i know for a fact that at least one of my grandmothers lived this book (i kept picturing her as hilly, but less bossy/more proper). i don't know to what extent my father & his siblings were raised by the maid (willie bell!), but i remember going to visit her multiple times as a very young child, which tells me that there was a mutual respect/caring and it was passed on to me and my brother. i don't have anything insightful to say about race relations, but i just have to share a few things about grandma because the things she says are just unbelievable. she's totally racist, and it's sad because she's not a hateful person, i guess she's just a product of her white, upperclass upbringing. i think that she's afraid of all minority groups. it seems like she feels that as a wealthy white woman she is somehow better than people of color and even pities them sometimes. it is extremely frustrating. she still calls black people "coloreds," has stopped flying commercially because of all the "low-class" people, and i can't even talk to her about the atlanta braves baseball team - a seemingly neutral subject - because she'll start talking about all the "foreigners" on the team. one time i brought a bulgarian guy over (just a friend) and she was totally suspicious, and months later when i showed her a pic of a new boyfriend she asked me what his last name was, then commented, "oh good. a nice american name." and then there was the time she said something rude about Catholics, not realizing that my boyfriend of 7 years was raised Catholic. I called her out on that one, and she was pretty shocked. and don't even get her started on President Obama. i guess i shouldn't tell her that my boss is a black guy.

    i enjoyed the book as i read it, but i don't think it was anything super spectacular. it was entertaining, but also led me to talk to my mom about what it was like to grow up during the 60s (so i told her about your blog, and then she "liked" it on facebook. score!) i haven't seen the movie but will probably get around to watching it soon. i wish that the book had actually revealed more of the real stories that skeeter collected, instead of just the back story. i love the way that abilene cared so much for mae mobley, and i enjoyed reading minny's account of celia. i felt scared/sad for all the women in the book - black and white - because their fears of being ostracized/harmed/killed is what kept most of them from taking action. i was born in the 80s, so sometimes i forget about the struggles everyone went through during those times. sometimes i wonder if i would have been brave enough to do the right thing. and like you said, there's still a looong way to go....

    wowzers that was long!

    ps - i just checked out "the road" from my local library eBook system, i shall start it tonite