Julie's Reviews > The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
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Dec 17, 11

bookshelves: read-2011, usa-historical
Read from February 22 to 24, 2011

I sat down one evening to skim through the first few pages of The Help to determine if I would proceed with a full read. I was immediately hooked and a couple of sessions later I closed the back cover. I didn't have to work hard- this is a compulsively readable novel. That this is such an easy read troubles me. Its subject matter is as heavy as Mississippi in August, but the tone is often as breezy as girls' night out in Venice Beach.

For all the accolades and attention Kathryn Stockett has received for telling the hidden-in-plain-sight truth of Jim Crow South in the 1960's, I felt cheated by her story-telling. Aibileen and Minny, black women who have spent their lives in service to white families, are portrayed with unsentimental clarity. These women are the real stories, the voices I most wanted to hear. Yet it was as if Stockett didn't trust her ability to carry a full novel in these characters. Instead, she relies on Skeeter - a young white woman who is having a "Eureka" moment of conscience and self-awakening - as the central protagonist. Skeeter is not a compelling narrator and every moment with her was a moment stolen from the characters whose lives should have been the central focus, the eponymous "Help".

In addition, the character of Celia is wasted in a mush of contradictions and implausible behavior. It makes zero sense that a tough-as-nails girl from the hollers couldn't boil water for coffee. Her presence in the plot is inexplicable, as she neither evolves as a character nor moves the story along. Oddly enough, I adored her. I just wish she would have been allowed to grow and participate in the story, instead of remaining its unfunny punchline.

The narrative comes alive in the delicate dance of shame, anger, control and love experienced by so many of the characters, white and black. The real story is rock-solid Aibileen in the Leefolt home as the family cook, maid and child care provider; it is rebel Minny submitting to her abusive husband, determined to keep her family together; it is society-grasping Elizabeth Leefolt, as she feels the desperate tug between convention and her conscience, which struggles to rise from the swamp of racial segregation; it is the deep love between Aibileen and little Mae Mobley Leefolt, contrasted brilliantly with the cold affect Mae Mobley receives from her emotionally stunted mother. These relationships are so compelling, you know that Stockett is writing from her heart, and they are what make this a beautiful read.

The awakening of the women who constitute "The Help" as they tell their stories is also remarkable. But again, the milquetoast and ironically ambitious Skeeter, with her hapless attempts at romance, gets in the way. There is a moment when her motives at gathering and publishing these stories are questioned by an embittered maid, Gretchen, but Stockett drops this in and quickly retreats. It's as if she isn't certain herself who should profit from the telling of these stories, the white woman who can walk away from controversy to a shiny new life in New York City, or the black women who risk everything- their jobs, their homes, their lives- to share the truth.

There is potential for a much more profound and revelatory story from this gifted and passionate writer. It made me long for the heartbreaking honesty and poetry of Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and the novel that changed forever how whites told the story of Jim Crow, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. These novels have withstood the test of history; I don't see The Help holding the same ground.
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Comments (showing 1-40 of 40) (40 new)

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Julie This is waiting for me at the library. Entering this read with mixed feelings- is it deserving of the full court press that follows its every move?


Chris I got this at a book sale last summer and have yet to open it. I think I'm going to continue to wait until the shoutin' is over! ;-)


Jill Don't go into it thinking it's redefining modern literature. I read it as an ARC. It's good and page-turning -- IMHO -- an enjoyable read. Nothing more, nothing less.


Tyra Its a good read and if you were oblivious to racial tensions/relations it is an eye-opener. If you already know about it...it is just a good story


Julie Jeanette wrote: "HEEEEEEELLLLLLLLP!!!!!"

What can I do??? :D


Jill Each of us has our own loves and hates when it comes to books. So Julie, you'll have to decide for yourself. I read it WAY before "all the shoutin'" and I found it to be a page-turner. The best book I ever read? Well, no, not even close. But will it keep you absorbed? Can't answer that -- but it DID keep me absorbed.


Julie Well now, speak of the devil:

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/201...


Jill Probably nil to zero. If every person came out of the woodwork to sue authors because a character somewhat resembled them, no one would want to publish. My feeling is, someone's trying to get rich the easy way...


Jill Probably nil to zero. If every person came out of the woodwork to sue authors because a character somewhat resembled them, no one would want to publish. My feeling is, someone's trying to get rich the easy way...


message 10: by Jeanette (last edited Feb 27, 2011 02:05PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" Awesome awesome awesome review, Julie! All the strengths and weaknesses pointed out.


message 11: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Julie this is indeed an awesome review; you very powerfully make your case. My belief, though, is that Stockett was in a sort of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma. Remember when William Styron wrote Confessions of Nat Turner and was lambasted for daring to put himself in the shoes of black protagonists? Stockett wasn't aspiring to be a Harper Lee or a Maya
Angelou; they are far more literary writers. I think she was just trying to write an entertaining story. IMHO.


message 12: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica Julie--Several other people have told me the book disappointed them.


Julie Jill wrote: "Julie this is indeed an awesome review; you very powerfully make your case. My belief, though, is that Stockett was in a sort of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma. Remember when Wil..."

Jill- to me that is the conundrum and the central irony of this novel. Jim Crow as entertainment. It's not that I think racial segregation is a sacred cow that can't be written about in warm and humorous novels. It's that I think Stockett short-changed her skills and her most compelling characters. If she has been criticized as a privileged white voice speaking as a black maid, it isn't justified from a literary aspect, IMO. I thought she carried it off beautifully.

Amy Tan (at least her earlier novels) and Wally Lamb come to mind as writers who convey great depth and complexity in their characters and tackle intense subjects while writing in very accessible, non-"literary" styles. It just seems that Stockett didn't put her faith in herself and in her story.

OOH- this is like a book club! Makes me happy to talk about this stuff :)


message 14: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica I recommend the nonfiction (but very readable) book "The Warmth of Other Sons," by Isabel Wilkerson. She covers many of these issues in her study of the migration of African-Americans from the south to the north and west during Jim Crow.


Julie Jessica wrote: "I recommend the nonfiction (but very readable) book "The Warmth of Other Sons," by Isabel Wilkerson. She covers many of these issues in her study of the migration of African-Americans from the sou..."

Jessica- I had my hands on this in a bookstore yesterday. Should have held on to it!


message 16: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica Julie--I am starting to think Wilkerson should be giving me some royalties. It is one of the best books I'd read in a long time.


message 17: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill YES, it IS like a book club :) I sorta wish I could bring out the wine and cheese!

But yes, Amy Tan and Wally Lamb -- among others -- do convey complexity while handling intense subjects. But I still wonder if this was K. Stockett's intention. Celia, for example, is used for comic relief; she's delightful but by no means a fully fleshed-out character. IMHO again, I think we need to look at the INTENT of the writer. Is she trying to educate or is she trying to entertain -- or a combo? Stockett seemed to be writing a good yarn, nothing more, nothing less. It's like a delicious dessert. It's SO much fun while you're eating it and the next day -- it's promptly forgotten.


Chris Great review, Julie! Sounds like an easy breezy summer read!


Julie Jill wrote: "YES, it IS like a book club :) I sorta wish I could bring out the wine and cheese!

But yes, Amy Tan and Wally Lamb -- among others -- do convey complexity while handling intense subjects. But ..."


If it involves wine & cheese, I'm there!

Jill, I think Stockett's intention (based on the results) is clear. My question is "why?" (Rhetorical, of course, since none of us knows the author's mind). My central complaint is the jarring disconnect between her subject matter and her tone, as well as that of her ability and the literary choices she made. As I struggle in learning to write, I wonder why she short-changed her characters and her story. That's all ;)


message 20: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill I didn't "feel" that -- the jarring disconnect. But who knows, after a couple of glasses of Merlot, maybe I'd change my mind :)


Cherae Yes, I agree Stockett was writing from her heart but I was left with the feeling that these stories were not new and had been done better. I liked her attempt to portray the delicate balance of "forbidden" friendships and kindnesses but this book reminded me of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" without the religion. I wonder what Stockett was trying to accomplish?


Julie :-) It's those damn stars. I'm beginning to think I want to review without them. There's just too much nuance in my reaction to most books for a simplistic rating system.


message 23: by Julie (last edited Dec 11, 2011 02:13PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Julie For those who admired or were disappointed by this novel, please read Isabel Wilkerson's astonishing The Warmth of Other Sons (you will find my and countless other glowing reviews on Goodreads). It is a groundbreaking history of The Great Migration - the flight of African-Americans from Jim Crow South to the hoped- for Promised Land of the North & West of the US. It brings the real story of Jim Crow to heartbreaking, hopeful life in the grand tradition of oral history and with painstaking research.


message 24: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica I completely agree, Julie.


Julie Oh Jeanette, I love it. A typo-keeper to be sure! Best part is, I checked in to clean up some typos in my original review.
Jessica, thank you again for convincing me to Suns/Sons - what a gift.


message 26: by Jay (new) - added it

Jay Oh, Julie, you are both talented and keenly perceptive. I haven't read "The Help" but saw the movie and have been hesitant to actually read the text. Your reviews are always for me important markers.


Julie Jay- I'm so humbled by your words. Thank you. I know this book is very dear to many readers and I don't want to detract from anyone's enjoyment, nor would I discourage anyone from reading it. Mine is just another voice in the chorus.


Diana Jay wrote: "Oh, Julie, you are both talented and keenly perceptive. I haven't read "The Help" but saw the movie and have been hesitant to actually read the text. Your reviews are always for me important markers."

The movie, in my opinion, does nothing for the book. The book has a richness lacking in the Hollywood version, but I take Julie's concerns to heart . . . It might serve as a door partly cracked for those who still support slavery in one form or another. . . or at least I hope so : )


Heleen This was a very insightful review. While I gave the book 4 stars and enjoyed reading it, you have opened my eyes to some of it's flaws.


Julie Heleen wrote: "This was a very insightful review. While I gave the book 4 stars and enjoyed reading it, you have opened my eyes to some of it's flaws."

Thank you, Heleen. I love about this community! I'm constantly challenged by others' insights and learning from their unique perspectives. I'm glad you enjoyed the book - that's what it's all about.


message 31: by Gabriela (new) - added it

Gabriela I am so glad to have found your review! I bought the book several months ago, started reading it, but after all the mixed reviews I couldn't bring myself to finish it. After reading all the responses, I think I'll finally give it another chance. Thanks!


Patti What a great review! Wish i could have written it but you nailed it on the head!


Caitlin You completely took the words from my mouth. I did enjoy the book, and yet how anyone could say this story is as well-written or deep as To Kill a Mockingbird is beyond me.


Torii Wow love this review, Julie- I was a little late on the Help train but this review really helped solidify how I felt about it...


Annie Romanos Very succinct review which sums up thoughts to a t on this book.


Allieff Shahrul-Kamar Spot on Julie! I am very glad that someone can see how the theme is exploited to garner mainstream success. Probably not a terrible book, but it is definitely the theme that won the accolades rather than literary value. I am very much indifferent before and after reading this. It triumphs on its idea but lacks of real writing styles that can amaze readers.


message 37: by Lorie (new)

Lorie Gel your review spoke for me. i totally agree with you!


Maritza I agree that Skeeter probably shouldn't have been the main protagonist. While she was interesting I would have loved to read almost everything from Abileen's POV. She was such a strong character and you could tell that she really cared for Mae Mobley.


message 39: by Kia (new)

Kia Birdsong You know, both of my grandmothers were The Help at different times while raising my parents, and trying to get their education during this time frame, which itself was a remarkable feat, and even risky, particularly in The South. I grew up with their stories of their employers, and it was not something white people would be flocking to see on a Girl's Night Out. The families they worked for swore that The Help loved them. They could not be more wrong, the Help are good actors, their survival depends on it. . Extreme imbalances of power breed only a helpless sense of obligation and resentment. I want to read this out of curiosity, but I think my grandmothers, were they still alive would tell me to burn it. I heard there's a book written by a black woman about Mississippi, that is more "authentic", shall we say? Maybe I'll try this Jim Crow Lite after....


Scartowner Wow. What she said. What a great review, in words I wish I could have thought up myself.


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