Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Help me with The Help.


I've tried to write this post two other times. Feeling the effect of knowing my readers, methinks. Blogs (like the entire internet,) started out as these big ol' anonymous things. It's easy to say what's on your mind when no one knows it's you. It's sometimes hard when people do know it's you. But...it builds character.

I decided that my problem with my previous two attempts was that I was trying to say too much. I have a lot of thoughts about this book. However, I've decided that the best plan of action is to keep it short and sweet for now, and save the long and sour for later :p

The movie adaptation of the novel The Help opens today. If you've been living in a hole, The Help is a runaway bestseller written by Kathryn Stockett. It's a story about a group of women in the South during the beginnings of The Civil Rights movement. If you're not familiar with the plot, you can check out the preview for the movie below.



I read this book a few months ago. It's been on the bestseller list for years, so I think I read it kind of on the downswing of the craze. I say that because it was staring me in the face on display at my local library, and I had heard previously that people were having to wait weeks and weeks on their libraries' waiting lists to read it.

To sum up my thoughts: I liked it, but I didn't love it. And I don't really understand why so many people (mainly white women,) did love it. The buzz I've heard about this book far outweighs what I talked about in a previous post about The Blind Side . When I am on pinterest, this book gets posted several times a day by a white woman/girl with the comments like "great!" "I loved this book!" or, "I can't wait to read this!" I would easily say that it the most popular book on the site. And, if you look on Amazon, it's got thousands of reviews and an almost five-star rating. In fact when I went to amazon and typed "t", the prompt said The Help (granted, that could be because I searched for it before--you go to amazon and see if it does the same thing for you.)

So, I need your help...what is the deal with this book? Why are so many white women responding so strongly to it? If you've read it, how did it impact your life? What do you see as the major themes? Why do you think it doesn't seem to be getting as an enthusiastic of a reaction from black readers?

I have some more plot specific thoughts, but I'm going to end it for now. I really hope that those of you that have read it will leave me comments and we can continue the conversation in (a) later post(s). And if you haven't read it, and just want to leave me a comment--that's cool too.

18 comments:

  1. going to amazon.... (I reserve the right not to disclose what it autocompletes for me, lol--but I have never searched for The Help)...

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  2. hahaha totally! amazon does know I'm a white woman in my 30s, would love to hear if this happens when logged in as a man.

    also, I haven't read this. If this discussion is really meaty though I'll try :)

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  3. I went to Amazon and clicked on the Books tab and then went to search and clicked on the letter T and "The Help" came up. So it's not just you. I read something today about the book and I don't plan on reading it because they call some kid 'retarded downy'. I don't think it's okay to make fun of Downs Syndrome kids like that.....or children at all.

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  4. Nice post DeAnna! I saw the book at the library just like you and picked it up because of all the hype. I sincerely tried reading it but just never did. I guess I will try again. I'm interested to read more what you have to say about it though.

    Thanks--Mario

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  5. Anonymous4:52 PM

    The thing that made me like this book so much was that I felt like Stockett was able to give her characters, from both sides of the racial divide she created, real depth, rather than resorting to archetypal imitations.

    For myself, as a white woman, it is sometimes difficult to understand the way that minority women were treated before the Civil Rights movement. At the same time, it is also easy to feel some solidarity with minorities, in that we had our own fight for the right to vote and gain individual freedoms (of course, the scale of injustice we are looking at is vastly different).

    Additionally, the subject matter of the book the main characters are working on: having your secrets told by someone who knows them only because you didn't think they needed to be concealed when they were around, is delightfully gossipy and juicy. It is like a real-life burn book with real world implications.

    IMHO, it is a combination of those things that makes so many white women love the book.

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  6. Amazon found it for me too. T became The Help in Books. In everything, T became The Help in Books.

    I saw the book in the TC while browsing one day and bought it on sight because it reminded me of the play by Tony Kushner, Caroline or Change. I liked the book because it seemed to show the high privileged culture of southern white women. All the stereotypes of southern queens who focus completely on style and social standing, seeming incapable of any sincerity or intellect. It reinforced all my biases and I enjoyed it. A fantastic few minutes.

    The third book down on Amazon in response to my T in Books was To Kill a Mocking Bird. I saw the film again recently, and really enjoyed it too. It is an interesting parallel to The Help, written by a white woman also, and also makes a white person a messiah figure to blacks. And she never published another book. I wonder if Kathryn Stockett has any other stories to tell. Maybe she could tell her own story as a white woman who was raised by a black maid, without the fiction, and own her own racism and her journey to change.

    I think stories about how some white folks do not fully buy into the jim crow racism of the south are decent fantasy fare to help us believe we don't have to either. Sort of like gay "soft porn" novellas can help isolated young gay folks come out.

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  7. i do live in a hole. :) well i just lack media in my home, but i think i will go and reserve this from my library and then come back after i read it and tell you what i think...

    andrea

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  8. Andrea6:53 AM

    I read this book over a year ago, but this is what I remember...
    I really liked this book because I thought it was more well written than a lot of newer books. I also thought the characters were interesting and I liked the way the author made the different voices. Another reason I liked it is because I haven't read a ton of books set in that time period and I thought it was interesting to realize how recent the events and predjudices were. In my life it is easy to forget they ever happened, let alone that they happened in my parents' lifetime.

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  9. Susan Parsel-Armagost10:34 AM

    I read the book in almost one sitting I enjoyed it so much. As a white woman, I never really thought about why I liked it, so leave it to you to make me think about it.

    Reading the back stories of all the maids was interesting. It is evident the white women had minimal, or more likely, no concerns or cares for their help. This book allowed us to see the help's personal lives, how they thought about certain things and see their take on their white folks. I never read anything about that before. It gave them a voice.

    I was never around the social aspect of having a black woman as "help", so that was foreign to me. It was eye opening just how important having a black domestic was. I have had domestic help over the years and have always treated them as an equal, just someone doing their job.

    The book was well written and interesting. It was an easy read and the stories of the characters were nicely developed and easy to follow. I tried to read a 2nd book on this topic but it was so poorly written, I had to stop reading.

    I look forward to hearing what your feeling and opinions are on the book, DeAnna!

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  10. Chunk Hotzumomo1:54 PM

    Anon@4:52pm - Did it really give a good portrayal of both sides? How do you know, if you are only really intimately familiar with the White side. This is what can be so frustrating about discussing race, White people often think they know both sides. The same goes for the book, how does the white author know both sides? How can she know about the experience of being black before the civil rights movement? The first rule of fiction is: write what you know. I am sure she nailed the white perspective, as she does -know- that, but its only because the book is read by so many other white women, that have no clue as to the black experience, that the book is held up as "capturing both sides".

    Plus... this is yet another example of white people profiting by selling black culture to other white people.

    Anon, I really dont mean to attack you. Its just that these ideas become frustrating after hearing them so often. I am very glad you shared your feelings, and they are valid. I only mention them to better illustrate my understanding of the situation.

    FWIW, I am a white male.

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  11. I loved this book way more than I thought I would. As whole, I liked the writing and loved the characters. I think white women like this book because it sheds some light on a subject most of them have probably never even thought about.

    My great grandmother was the help for a significant portion of her life. I wish she was still here so I could ask her about what her life was like back then. When a book can provoke a thoughtful discussion, I'm all for it.

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  12. Hey! I know Tameka! :)

    I was going to answer your question, "Liberal white guilt!"

    But if someone like Tameka, who is smart and thoughtful, liked The Help, I'm not sure I can stick to my original answer, even in jest.

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  13. Anonymous1:41 AM

    @Chunk, you will note that I said that she gave the characters depth, NOT that she accurately portrayed both sides. As a work of fiction, she was able to create characters you care about, and in turn, makes you want to find out what happens on the next page.

    My second paragraph was meant to illustrate that white women, in particular, generally feel some solidarity with oppressed minorities, and wasn't meant to be directly related to the book.

    You are absolutely right that I don't have any idea about the accuracy of her portrayal of the black perspective in her book. To be honest, I don't even know that the white perspective in her book was accurate, having never been even remotely close to the socioeconomic position the white women in the book enjoy.

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  14. I love that I found this blog!

    I liked the book -- but not because of why everyone else does. I like it because it made me think. It wasn't just in the story, it was about the civil rights movement in general, and the author's perspective. Why did Kathryn Stockett think that this would be the case? Why was she moved to write this book, like this? It is very interesting to me.

    I think it is good it is creating discussion, even if it is just to debunk the book, because we so rarely have open dialogue about how things are today. Not yesterday, not years ago, but right now. I guess that is what your blog is doing, and I love it!

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  15. i liked it but i wasn't blown away plot wise. i thought there must be some huge twist at the end or something. i guess the pie thing and the Constantine character thing were supposed to provide that but i was underwhelmed. BUT it was well written and i devoured it in a few hours. so i obviously need to read more again. and NOT just toddler books;)
    YOURS, MINE AND OURS

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  16. http://www.adiosbarbie.com/2011/08/this-is-why-i-worry-about-the-help/

    Thought u might like this!

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  17. I liked it because it was an interesting dilemma as a mother. I guess I equated it a bit with the nanny diaries. How could you have someone else raise your children, get them so attached, and then so easily dismiss them from the children's lives?

    As an adult, how could I blame adorable kids for the wickedness of their parents? How could I not get attached to the kids I'm taking care of?

    It just raised interesting questions for me and the characters were well-developed. I imaging the characters do read true for some who lived through that era, but no single literary character could tell "the truth" as there were such a plethora of experiences. I read it with the same question I have in my head as I read any historical fiction--could it have happened this way? With the Help, maybe.

    This article was interesting on the "mammy" perspective.
    http://www.ajc.com/opinion/honoring-the-full-humanity-1124676.html

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  18. I am a white, raised middle-class female who has only seen the movie. I saw it with my husband just this week and we both cried. I feel like it made me want to do better. I suppose I identify strongly with the white protagonist. It is no small part of the mission of my church to have genuine relationships with people of other races that do not merely try to fix or change the other person. (In my town, the divide is largely black/white.) Over the last 6 years I've been involved, I have found myself very clumsy at building any friendships from scratch and especially those that cross into black and/or poverty culture. Living in the neighborhood, I hope my kids will have less difficulty.

    While I didn't see the messiness involved in such friendships in the movie, I did see Aibileen and Skeeter (and others) exhibiting great courage and taking great risks. They did not change the world and both of them remained more or less in the same socio-economic situation at the end of the movie as at the beginning, but they were better, stronger people because of their relationship with each other. I did not see them trying to change each other, just encouraging each other to be themselves.

    Perhaps people could see it as another white-rescuing-black story, but I don't think that's what is intended and it is not what I took away from the movie. It seemed as though they had helped each other. I appreciated that it was not easy, that the movie did not leave me feeling fully convinced that everything was going to work out okay, since Aibileen was still living where she was and there were countless others with her. And I felt all the way through past the end that this could either end pretty well or really horribly. I guess I'm just trying to say that Aibileen didn't seem at all rescued to me, only recognized for the strong woman she was before any of this happened. And her skill and position was just as if not more valuable to the cause than Skeeter's.

    I left feeling encouraged to take risks in relationships, to contribute whatever gifts I've been given and my own self to making us all (both rich and poor, black and white) more human to each other. I felt encouraged that, while we can be honest about our shortcomings, we can still do whatever we're each in a position to do. I felt encouraged that, if we are people of courage, we can build relationships that will help us be better people or more of who we truly are, if that makes sense.

    The one scene that I can think of that gave me pause was when Aibileen pulled out her own writings and Skeeter then wrote them down herself. Why did Skeeter not just submit Aibileen's writings or encourage Aibileen to submit them herself?

    I am more than open to hearing different views. I can only see this movie as a white female, but I am curious how you felt walking away from it.

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