Caitlin Constantine's Reviews > The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
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May 09, 10

Read from May 06 to 09, 2010

Like seemingly a lot of other people who read this book, I found myself incapable of putting it down. I read the entire thing in one day. (Granted, it was on vacation, where the biggest decisions of my day centered around whether to wear the blue-and-white striped bikini or the black-and-white striped one.) I don't want to go as far as to say it was enjoyable, because it is very difficult to read about things like separate bathrooms for "the help," or men being beaten into blindness for using the wrong bathroom, or the assassination of Medgar Evers, and feel entertained by those things. I guess the best word I could use is "fascinated." I was fascinated by the details of the era, of the way the maids knew way more about their bosses than their bosses knew about them, about the variety of ways used to enforce the existing social order.

What spoke to me more than anything, though, is the idea that telling the truth about one's life is one of the most powerful, revolutionary things a person can do. It called to mind that poem with the couplet that reads, "What would happen in one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open." I am a huge believer in the power of storytelling to remake the world, and this book seems predicated on the same idea.

At the same time, I thought the blurbs of the book were rather misleading, giving the impression that the stories of the maids would do a lot to bring the maids and their employers together. While this was true in a couple of instances, for the most part, the stories mostly served the purpose of shaming one particularly vile character. And also, while I have no problem believing that affection can and did exist between the maids and their employers, I had a hard time believing that affection could come anywhere near close to serving as a counter-balancing force for all of the hatred, disdain and bigotry that seemed to pollute every aspect of life.

In addition, I am often rather wary of discussions of racism that place it in the South prior to the Civil Rights movement. It just seems like a rather convenient way for people to wash their hands of any responsibility for dealing with racism today, because they can always point at Jackson in 1962 and say, Hey, at least we aren't that bad! My friend Alice made the point in her review that this book is like Race Relations 101 for the Oprah set, in that it allows people to feel a sense of superiority without engaging in any serious reflection about the implications of such things in the modern world.

Finally, I am sure I am not the only one who found it rather amusing to read Stockett's pre-emptive dismantlings of many of the criticism that could be used against her. Throughout the story, there are references to the questionable ethics of a white woman helping black women tell their stories and the lack of serious understanding that white woman had about the lives of the women she was working with. I appreciated seeing those ideas addressed, because it let me know that Stockett recognized she was treading on fraught territory, as a privileged young white woman writing about the lives of poor black women in the 1960s, and that she had thought about these things while she wrote.
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