03 January 2011
Leigh describes herself as "Writer, Editor, Aspiring Novelist, Mom", and has currently revised and re-submitted her YA to her dream agency. While she waits to hear back from them, she's agreed to do a review of Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help for us. Over to you, Leigh.
Thanks to the Burrow for having me! Monday’s book review day, and I offered to review Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help.
I have to start with a True Confession: I had zero interest in reading this book when it came out in 2009, and when it came up as my book club’s January selection, I half-heartedly agreed—mainly out of curiosity.
Curiosity because Stockett’s book was rejected 60 times and it took her five years to get it published. Still it’s been on the New York Times bestseller list 91 weeks, and as of Jan. 9, 2011, it’s No. 8, up from No. 10.
Despite all that, my attitude remained… reluctant.
More true confession? Because I’m a white daughter of the South, and although I was born and reared in Baton Rouge, La., my family is all from Mississippi. All of them.
I grew up knowing, hearing, sometimes witnessing the institutionalized racism that forms the setting of The Help, and I’m horribly sorry for all of it. Incredibly sorry. But how can I change it?
I do my best to teach my children a better way to think and to treat others, and I try to identify and rid myself of racist thoughts whenever I identify them. Still, the last thing I feel like doing is reading about it (again).
Then I read Stockett’s book and realized what a gift we have as writers. The potential to change even just one mind…
I’ll start my review by saying this book is not written for African-Americans.
There are almost 100 one-star reviews for The Help on Amazon.com, and I’m pretty sure every one is written by an African-American who is insulted by what he or she views as racist stereotypes in it.
I’m not going to say they’re wrong. But I will say I didn’t read it that way. I thought Stockett did an amazing job creating three believable characters who I genuinely cared about; who I wept, laughed and feared for; and who I think have an amazing story to tell.
The book doesn’t focus on the horrible events that occurred in Civil Rights-era Jackson, Miss., but some of those events are mentioned. They’re used to heighten the suspense surrounding the fictional story of two black maids who are brave enough to tell what it was like to work for white women during that time.
I found the characters three dimensional and the writing compelling enough that when I finished, I was exhausted. These characters experience unbelievable meanness and incredible love during a dark, dark time in our nation’s history.
It’s a well-crafted tale of the complexities of human relationships and how even though one might not want to care about another person or another race, life can sometimes have a way of changing one’s mind.
The story is told through the first-person point of view of three different female characters, two are African-American maids and one is a white friend of their white female employers.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is the white friend who is an unmarried, awkward college graduate with dreams of becoming a writer. The maids, Aibileen and Minny, pretty much only dream of following “the rules” of working for white women so they don’t lose their jobs.
Through a chance connection with an editor in New York, Skeeter starts looking for a book idea, and a series of events leads her to interviewing Aibileen, Minny, and eleven other maids about their work experiences.
The situations that mark the maids’ daily lives is the plot of the book, and the central conflict focuses on the absurdity that while their white employers will let the black “help” feed, bathe, and instruct their children, they are afraid to sit on the same toilet seat as one of them.
It’s so ludicrous, and yet it’s so real. I remarked to my husband that I had no problem believing every fictional event in the book could actually have happened, and it was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.
The Help doesn’t indict white Mississippi. It simply relates how things were, and leaves it to the reader to decide how things should or should not be—both with regard to race relations and with regard to how much of your individual decision-making, your belief system, you’re willing to cede to others. Black or white.
I give The Help a huge A+ with stars all around it. There were only two spots in the last quarter where I felt the pacing dragged, or where events felt repetitive. I confess I was dissatisfied with the handling of one situation, but it was so minor, I feel nit-picky even mentioning it.
There’s some debate over whether this book should be considered a classic. I think if you judge classics based on how well they show human relations during a certain period in our history, then it qualifies.
Stockett beautifully illustrates how when the majority insists on being wrong, the few who stand up for change are the ones who are remembered.
It’s a very relevant message even today, and if it’s received by just a few people and causes them to analyze their behavior and beliefs, then I think it’s a story worth reading
Thank you, Leigh, for that thought provoking review. I bought The Help nearly a year back because I fell in love with the cover (yes, AGAIN), and after reading this review, I already put it on top of my TBR pile.
To read more of Leigh, do visit her blog, "That's Write". She blogs Mondays and Thursdays on 'Writing, getting published, life and being a mom'.