03 January 2011

Guest post by Leigh T. Moore - Book Review of 'The Help'

We at The Burrow are pleased to welcome Leigh T. Moore as our guest blogger today. Those of you who have known us for any length of time would know that almost half the Burrowers were born within two days of each other - Leigh shares her birthday with one of the three, and by extension is practically a Burrower!
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'.


Unknown said...

What a great review. I would consider reading this out of curiosity.

S.A. Larsenッ said...

I'm with Anne. Now I'm really curious...

Stina said...

Great review, Leigh. I'd never head of the book until today.

Vicki Rocho said...

Leigh, you're sooo much better at reviews than I am! I didn't want to read the book either. My sister kept telling me to give it a try, but it wasn't until I learned Kathryn Stockett was coming to town that I picked it up. And I loved it. Made me uncomfortable to read in a lot of places, but it was a great story!

Hart Johnson said...

Leigh-this was a great review! Racial stuff, especially multi-racial perspectives, are such tricky stuff to writer--especially these stories set at a time when there really was so little cultural immersion. And I think it's important to remember that even in the presence of stereo-types or pieces of inauthenticity, there can be an important story.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great review. I was also reluctant to read the book and read it for book club. I also really enjoyed it and found a lot of truth in it. At the time I read it, I winced a little at the use of dialect, which I had a feeling might be viewed as derogatory--but I don't think it was the author's intention at all. Thanks for the review.

Old Kitty said...

Such an explosive book!! Thanks for the review. I guess the racial divides still run hurtfully deep in America and need addressing - and if 100+ African Americans find this book deeply offensive - it is understandable to see why given the historical basis. Perhaps it would have been less offensive if one african american character in this book had aspirations other than being a maid? I've not read the book - I don;t know!! But it seems from reading here that only the white woman had lofty ambitions. Again this is just from me reading the review here - not the book!!! I mean this is fiction rather than factual writing and the world is your oyster in fiction writing isn't it? Give us some hope!!! :-)

I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird for school. A lot of my classmates objected to the N word that proliferates throughout the book and some even refused to carry on reading it. It's central themes of justice, individuality, fair play and being humane was lost. In retrospect, I realise that the classmates who objected did so because they were already confronted with this N word in real life and did not have the wish to read it too in a class.

Take care

Matthew MacNish said...

Excellent review Leigh. I bought this one for my mother in law for Christmas.

That being said I can understand why African Americans might be upset. A white writer writing black characters from that time - as if she can possibly imagine what it must have been like - does sound a little pretentious. But I haven't read the book so I really can't say for sure.

Great blog here too, I'm following now.

Tara said...

What a well-written review, Leigh. Thank you.

Unknown said...

It's funny because I have been putting off reading this book as well for the same reason as you. Sometimes I should just jump in and read a book anyways. I'm usually pleasantly surprised.

Lydia Kang said...

Great review. I haven't read it yet either, for many of the reasons you cited. I may pick it up now and give it a whirl.

LTM said...

Thanks, guys! And thanks again to my buddies at the Burrow for asking me to do this!

I really did like this book more than I ever expected I would. And I do think the author accomplished her purpose for writing it (explained in her afterword), although she took a risk in her portrayal of her black characters.

It's just a really great, thought provoking story. I'd recommend going ahead and reading it~ :o) <3

Colene Murphy said...

Amazing job on the review! I hadn't had any interest in reading this one ever until now. Intrigued. Thanks!!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Wonderful review! I had the same aversion to reading it, once I knew what they hubub was about. But perhaps I'll give it a try (I'm not from the South, so I don't really have even that much to stop me). Sometimes we need to look into the darkness of the past.

Golden Eagle said...

Thank you for the review! I'd heard of this book before (it's on my library's Hottest Title list) but I didn't really know what it was about . . . 'till now.

Patti said...

I haven't read this book either and didn't really have a desire to until I read your review. Thanks.

PK HREZO said...

I agree with you, Leigh. I loved The Help and found it so easy to get into her characters' heads. It took a few pages to get into, but once I did, I couldn't put it down.
I didn't know she was rejected 60 times!! Wow! Things like this give me such inspiration.
Loved your awesome review!

Carolyn Abiad said...

Great review! I stay away from "agenda" books...I like to think for myself, rather than have an author spoon-feed me theirs. (Somehow people with an agenda seem to go out of their way not to acknowledge other points of view. IMHO.)I guess this isn't that kind of book though...so I'll pick it up next time I'm out. :)

LTM said...

This is not an overt agenda book at all. I mean, there's a subtle message, but it's nothing you don't already know. It primarily tells a story about relationships.

I think you'll like it! :o) Thanks guys for stopping by and commenting~ <3

Unknown said...

Leigh- Thanks for that wonderful review. As I am teaching the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) in my US History class, I believe "The Help" would be a great perspective of how future generations were affected by the great dividing force of racism.

We have compared the Dred Scott vs. Sandford and Brown vs. Board of Ed Supreme Court cases to show the progression of change in US History. This book, I think would add another dimension to my student's learning of this topic.

Will recommend to English teachers at my school.

Thanks again,

LTM said...

Hey, Chary--Thanks! I think it would be a great choice. HS readers should have no prob. w/this book, and it does show very real situations that arose dealing with integration. Stockett takes a few very minor historical liberties, but nothing your students would even notice--things like Shake-n-Bake & Bob Dylan.

(You can throw in how those silly English majors like to take artistic license and capitalize on suspension of disbelief...) ;p j/k

RaShelle Workman said...

Hi Leigh - Great review. I've had this book staring me in the face for months. A friend of mine read it and said she loved it. I haven't had the desire to read it - yet. Mainly because of one word you used. Exhausting. I know it'll be that way. I knew from the moment I read the first page. So, it's been shelved. For now.

LTM said...

@RaShelle--I hear ya, honey. But it's a *good* exhausted... ;p I think you'll like it~ <3

Dawn Ius said...

I LOVE books that challenge my comfort zone. Sounds like I need to add this to the 2011 TBR pile. Great review.

LTM said...

Thanks, Dawn! I think you'll like it~ :o) <3