Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Book Review Club: "The Help"

"Sit down on your behind, Minny, because I'm about to tell you the rules for working in a white Lady's house." As 14-year-old Minny listens to her Mama explaining the seven rules --the last one being "No sass-mouthing"--she thinks to herself "Why I got to be like that? I know how to stand up to people."

Set in Jackson Mississippi in 1962, The Help seems like a story from a long-ago time when segregation was still in force in the South and racist attitudes were common throughout the country. Yet it was less than 50 years ago that the fictional scenes Kathryn Stockett describes so realistically in this book could have been a reality.

The story focuses on three main characters who alternate as narrators: Aibileen and Minny, both black maids working in the homes of white families, and Skeeter Phelan, a young white woman whose life was shaped by her own family's black maid.

Aibileen is currently working for Elizabeth Leefolt, and her primary responsibility, in addition to cooking and cleaning and whatever else "Miss Elizabeth" needs, is to take care of the Leefolts' young daughter Mae Mobley. Aibileen truly loves little Mae, more so than Mae's own mother who ignores her and punishes her in a fashion that borders on child abuse. Aibileen has worked for many families in a similar capacity over the years, always quitting when the children got too old--specifically, when they began to see and accept the distinction in the color lines in society.

Minny Jackson is Aibileen's good friend and polar opposite. While Aibileen bears her burdens stoically, Minny never loses the attitude she had as a young girl. She stands up for herself to her white employers when she is treated unfairly, and as a result doesn't hold any job for long. When Hilly Holbrook fires Minny as her mother's maid, Minny retaliates with "The Terrible Awful," an act so outrageous that Minny can't tell anyone just what she has done. Known throughout the community as a great cook, Minny must resort to taking the only job offer she has, working for a woman shunned by the society ladies of Jackson for being "white trash."

Fresh out of college, Skeeter Phelan, the only white narrator of the story, is a disappointment to her mother because she comes home from Ole Miss with a diploma, rather than a husband-to-be. Living with her parents, Skeeter finds herself stuck in the expectations of others. The only person she could really share her feelings with, the family maid Constantine, has mysteriously disappeared before Skeeter's return, and no one will tell her why she left. While her mother constantly belittles Skeeter's height, her hair, and everything about her appearance, Constantine had been the one to instill self-esteem in her with the mantra she taught Skeeter at a young age: "Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?"

Skeeter aspires to be a journalist and naively applies for a job at New York publishing firm. After a few months, she receives a reply from an editor at Harper's who doesn't offer her a job, but gives her some advice to build up her resume. She encourages Skeeter to find any kind of writing job as a starting point, and Skeeter does--as a replacement at the local newspaper for Miss Myrna, writing a weekly housecleaning advice column. Knowing nothing about cleaning, Skeeter approaches her friend Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen, for help and eventually begins to talk to Aibileen about much more than cleaning. A comment by Aibileen inspires her with an idea for a book--writing about what it is like for a black woman to work in a white home. "That's when the idea comes to me. No. I couldn't. That would be . . . crossing the line." But Skeeter does "cross the line," and in the process her eyes are opened to the injustices around her.

Though Skeeter has been raised with traditional values and is good friends with Elizabeth and the domineering Junior League President, Hilly Holbrook, she feels slightly uncomfortable with some of Hilly's ideas. In particular, she evades Hilly's constant request to publish an article in their League newsletter about Hilly's plan, "The Home Help Sanitation Initiative," a euphemism for building separate bathrooms for the black domestics in every white home.

Through the course of the book, Skeeter goes from a silent acceptance of the behavior around her to sneaking into the black neighborhood each night to visit Aibileen and record her story. As she meets more of the black maids in the town and records their stories with Aibileen's help, a new perspective of her world is opened up to her.

There are many sad and infuriating stories from the maids who risk telling their stories to Skeeter. One is imprisoned for stealing a worthless ring from her employer. Another's grandson is beaten and blinded for accidentally using the white bathroom.

Sign in restaurant window in Ohio (image from Wikipedia)

Not all the stories Skeeter records are tragic, however.

"Faye Belle, palsied and gray-skinned, cannot remember her own age. Her stories unfold like soft linen. She remembers hiding in a steamer trunk with a little white girl while Yankee soldiers stomped through the house. Twenty years ago, she held that same white girl, by then an old woman, in her arms while she died. Each proclaimed their love as best friends. Swore that death could not change this. That color meant nothing. The white woman's grandson still pays Faye Belle's rent. When she's feeling strong, Faye Belle sometimes goes over and cleans up his kitchen."

Skeeter is also surprised to learn that Louvenia, the maid whose grandson was permanently disabled, received help from her employer, who rushed Louvenia to the "colored hospital" and stayed by her side, brought casseroles to her every day, and gave her paid time off to care for her grandson.

Not until Skeeter finishes the book does she realize the true significance of what she has recorded. "Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize, 'We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought.' "

March on Washington, 1963 (image from Wikipedia)

The Help is a compelling novel of ordinary characters who must deal with surviving in this segregated society and whose lives have not yet been touched by the growing Civil Rights movement. Those of you who have read my other book reviews know that I enjoy mysteries, but this book was every bit as much of a page-turner as any mystery. I was drawn into the stories of Aibileen, Skeeter, and even the sassy Minny immediately and found myself cheering them on even as I hoped that the obnoxious Hilly would one day get her comeuppance. There is a reason this book has found its way to the best-seller list and why some have called it an "instant classic." Future classic or not, The Help definitely deserves a place on your "must read" list this year.

The Book Review Club meets the first Wednesday of every month and is hosted by Barrie Summy. Check out other reading recommendations here; why not join us next month?


  1. It sounds like a very strong and poignant book. Imagine being blinded for using the wrong bathroom? Makes no sense at all.

  2. Our book group is waiting for the PB release. What a best seller this has been.

  3. Hi Rose, Yes it amazes me that as little as 50 years ago, we had segregated restaurants, schools, etc. Having grown up in metro Detroit, things are still segregated in the sense that African Americans and white people (and other more recent immigrants) all seem to live in their own separate areas. I was very surprised in St. Louis how much more people lived together, spoke to one another, didn't keep separated. Interesting!

  4. Rose, that sounds like a very interesting book. I'm putting it on my list.

    Growing up in northern Illinois, I never thought we had racial problems. There were no obvious signs in windows, drinking fountains or on buses. But there were areas where the white folks lived and where the black folks lived. Going back even farther to before the turn of the century, there were areas where the Swedes lived, where the Irish lived and where the Italians lived. There was as much bigotry between these first settlers as there was between blacks and whites.

  5. I just read this book, and agree with you completely -- such great, compelling characters and you can't put it down!

    If I hadn't already read it, this review would have convinced me. :)

  6. That was a great review Rose. Our book group is looking forward to the release of the PB this summer - I think we're scheduled for July or August. Anyway, now I have to go check out the Book Review Club. Thanks Rose!

  7. I just finished this book a month ago, and I'm still thinking about it. It was wonderful, and the story of why the quthor chose this subject is also wonderful. Your review captured it perfectly!

  8. I've been flirting with this book as I pass it on the shelf at the bookstore~Now I might have to commit to a reading relationship...Your review was excellent and I've loved all the other books you've written about and recommended~gail "I hope you're surviving these last days of winter?, she says, wishing these were the last days of winter!

  9. I had either heard about this book or picked it up and fanned thru it sometime. I thought it sounded like a good read.

    Thanks for letting us know it is Rose.

  10. This sounds like a very compelling read. Thanks for the excellent review.

  11. This sounds like a fascinating read, and thank you for the great review!

  12. This book was profiled in the paper this past weekend. Sounds like a well written story that pulls you in.

  13. Everyone I know is reading this book. And, after reading your review, I can see why. I love strong characters. Thank you for reviewing.

  14. I've read only good reviews about this book, Rose. I received it as a birthday gift in Nov but have yet to read it (shame on me)! It's next on my list :)

  15. I’ve heard so much praise and intense criticism of this book so it was really helpful to hear a summary of the story and characters. I can see why it could please or offend. Great review!

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. Oh my goodness, when I read the "rules" I thought the book was going to be set in the 1800s or early 1900s - not 1962. I don't know why I was so surprised because I saw some of these same attitudes in the south in the 80s and just a few years back, too. Hard to believe.

  18. Wow, that sounds like an amazing book.

    My sister recommended it a while back, but I didn't really know what it was about.

  19. Very poignant book.
    Your book club sounds wonderful. I shall check it out!

  20. It does sound like an interesting book. Great review, Rose. I was just reading a similar book the other day. I forget what the title was. But it was a multi-generational novel about black slaves in America. I love delving back in time.

    It is disturbing to think that only 50 years ago, there were still attitudes like in this book.

  21. Tina, There are a few incidents in the book like this that are unbelievable.

    Patti, When I first heard of the book, it wasn't on the bestseller list. Apparently, it has caught on.

    Monica, Obviously, our society isn't color-blind yet. But we've come a long way since the 60's.

    Marnie, So true. My great-grandparents emigrated from Germany, and for a long time they experienced prejudice against them.

    Bee, Thanks! I didn't know what to expect when I started reading this book, but I was totally caught up in it.

    Amy, I think a lot more people will be reading this when the paperback comes out. How fun to be in a live book club!

    Joyce, Hello again! Yes, this book stayed with me a long time, too. I don't usually read all the author notes, but Stockett's background story helped to understand her point of view.

    Gail, Definitely pick up the book! I was on the library waiting list for months, but now I might go buy a copy anyway. Books have helped me get through the winter:)

    Susie, This is a book I highly recommend to everyone.

    Nancy, Thanks!

    Rose, Thank you, too; you would enjoy this one.

    Janet, I hadn't seen any reviews of this book until I started writing this.

    Barrie, I agree--strong characters are what determine whether I like a book or not. These three were all great.

    Joey, Once you start reading this one, you won't want to put it down.

    Sarah, I haven't read any criticism of the book; now I'm curious what people might find offensive about it. Aibileen and Minny are strong, admirable characters.

    Kathy, That's what disturbed me about the attitudes in the book. Somehow if it were an earlier time, I could understand it, but this hasn't been that long ago!

    Stacy, I knew little about the book when I picked it up, but was quickly drawn into the story.

    Sherry, I don't always participate in the Book Review Club, depending on time, but it's been fun.

    Wendy, It's hard to believe that my generation (I was a young girl then) could have had such attitudes.

  22. It sounds like a book I'd want to read, Rose. You know, when we lived in Germany on base from '68 to '72, I don't recall any problems between the races. As soon as we moved back to the States, though, my eyes were opened to a lot of bigotry, some subtle and some downright blatant. Have you read Sandra Brown's novel Rainwater? It has a similar racial tension/injustice theme, and it's one of those books that's hard to put down. What I really liked about it was the surprise ending.

  23. Rose, our book club read this book a couple months ago. We had a really interesting discussion since some of the women had been brought up by their maids, as happened in the book. I found it a compelling read although I felt the character of Hilly was too forced. She didn't seem like a peer of Skeeter to me, more like an older woman. And since I am old enough to remember those times there were some things which didn't jive, time-wise. But that's minor; overall I enjoyed the book a lot and hope that folks who read it realize how real it was (and thankfully we can say "was").

  24. I read this a few weeks ago and I have to agree with you 100%. Great book.

  25. I was just thinking that you hadn't done a book review in a while. I can't wait to find this book. Thanks for the recommendation!

  26. Your glowing recommendation has left me thinking I should stop reading blogs for a bit and start reading The Help. There are cetain books that stay with a person for a long, long time and this sounds like it might be one of them.



Thanks for stopping by. I love to hear from you, so please leave a comment. I'll try to reply here, but I'll definitely return the visit.