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The Help

September 15, 2011

There’s a line in the new musical The Book of Mormon in which a Mormon missionary stands in front of a warlord in Uganda and sings that “in 1978 God changed his mind about black people,” as part of his explanation of what he believes.  This pretty much sums up my reaction to first seeing the movie of The Help and then reading the book.  Why is this book popular right now?  The only answer I could come up with is that few people alive today have lived with “help,” so there’s a safe historical distance from the events Kathryn Stockett’s novel describes.

The movie is a civil rights tearjerker, and I resent the way it sets the audience up to feel good about how much better race relations are today. I was curious about the book because of all the praise it’s gotten from book bloggers, but what finally made me read it is today’s discussion with the Imaginary Friends Book Club.  The book does reveal a few details the movie left out, like that the daughter of the main character’s maid could “pass” for white, but I didn’t like it much better than I liked the movie (other opinions at Life in Scribbletown, Kitties, Kitties, Kitties, and Lemming’s Progress).

The characters are, ironically, pretty much all black or all white; the white characters are the blackest of villains.  And for some of them, it’s because they can’t rise above their historical circumstances.  The mother of the main character isn’t good enough to stand up for what is right the way her daughter does.  Reading about any volatile historical period fifty years later means you’re going to know which side was in the right and wonder how so many people could have been so wrong. I don’t like the way the story simplifies what might have been, at the time, complicated emotional issues:

“You see her in the…grocery, you never think she go and leave her baby crying in her crib like that. But the help always know.”

The simplification goes on and on, even though the story itself contradicts it. There’s an entire page describing what happens when a black maid angers a white lady, and it sounds genuinely from the point of view of a character, and points to a historical reality:

“First thing a white lady gone do is fire you. You upset, but you figure you’ll find another job, when things settle down, when the white lady get around to forgetting. You got a month a rent saved. People bring you squash casseroles.

But then a week after you lost your job, you get this little yellow envelope stuck in your screen door. Paper inside say NOTICE OF EVICTION. Ever landlord in Jackson be white and ever one got a white wife that’s friends with somebody. You start to panic some then. You still ain’t got no job prospects. Everwhere you try, the door slams in your face. And now you ain’t got a place to live.

Then it starts to come a little faster.

If you got a note on your car, they gone repossess it.

If you got a parking ticket you ain’t paid, you going to jail.

If you got a daughter, maybe you go live with her. She tend to a white family a her own. But a few days later she come home, say ‘Mama? I just got fired.’ She look hurt, scared. She don’t understand why. You got to tell her it’s cause a you.

Least her husband still working. Least they can feed the baby.

Then they fire her husband. Just another little sharp tool, shiny and fine.

They both pointing at you, crying, wondering why you done it. You can’t even remember why. Weeks pass and nothing, no jobs, no money, no house. You hope this is the end of it, that she done enough, she ready to forget.

It’ll be a knock on the door, late at night. It won’t be the white lady at the door. She don’t do that kind a thing herself. But while the nightmare’s happening, the burning or the cutting or the beating, you realize something you known all your life: the white lady don’t ever forget.

And she ain’t gone stop till you dead.”

But after this, what in the novel ends up saving the black maids who tell the stories about what it’s really like to work for these white women in Jackson, Mississippi in 1960? A sitcom solution called the “Terrible Awful.”  It’s funny, and nobody really gets hurt. Just like real life, right?  Except that we know better; we’ve already read the long passage about what was more likely to happen.

The only parts of the novel that strike me as both funny and true are the attempt by the mother of the main character to keep telling her what to wear from beyond the grave, and what one of the maids says to the child she is raising:  “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”  I’ve quoted that line to two different people recently, and have occasionally ended up saying it to myself just to get through the day.

If you like looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, thinking that you never would have acted like THAT even if you’d lived back then, this is a novel for you.  Wallow in your self-righteousness for an afternoon, and then go out and do something good, like read more about the issues or raise money for starving African children…the kind of children who dream about this country, as the Ugandan girl in the musical does, believing “the warlords there are friendly; they help you cross the street.”

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2011 8:44 am

    I am really, really glad to read a negative review of this book. It’s the very first one I’ve ever seen. Personally, I’ve never once been interested in reading this book because despite all the hype, it’s not the sort of book I generally like. I don’t want to be the one saying “wow this book sucks” when everyone else is over the moon about it, and I really don’t want to waste my time reading it if I think it’s going to suck before I even start. So I feel a little more justified in my feelings now that you’ve put this up!!

    • September 15, 2011 7:46 pm

      Of course, you and I often disagree in our reactions to books, so maybe you need to read it after all…

  2. September 15, 2011 8:49 am

    I marked this book off my list a while ago, and the more I hear about it from sources I trust, the less interested I am. I think the kind of simplification you describe makes us present-day readers feel good about ourselves because we couldn’t possibly be as bad as the bad people in this book.

    Coincidentally, I just finished the audiobook of The Book of Night Women, one of the books in Amy’s project. It’s wonderfully complex, with “villains” whom I ended up sympathizing with and “heroes” who were sometimes terribly cruel. Complex emotional issues, for sure, and in a setting where the atrocities were even worse than in the era depicted in The Help.

    • September 15, 2011 7:48 pm

      “Feel-good simplification,” yes. That’s what gave me the icky feeling I had watching the movie and, to a lesser extent, reading the book. It’s so easy to say “I never would have treated people like that” and so hard to prove your present-day freedom from any modern prejudices.

  3. September 15, 2011 9:00 am

    Jeanne, I think the only redeeming part for me in this book are the lines you quoted (and posted to me when I really, really needed them). So thank you for that and yes, I’m glad I’m done with this book.

    My review isn’t really a review, but more of a walk down my childhood path which was sparked by the book. While I didn’t say this in my blog post about the book, I was especially appalled that Skeeter never once noticed how marginalized all the women were, black and white. Geeze people, prejudice is prejudice.

    • September 15, 2011 7:52 pm

      Poor “Skeeter” was tarred with the same bad-nickname brush that appalled me about your memories of “Dimples.” I don’t think it’s coincidental that I’m fixating on the names–it’s become clear to me that recent discussions (mostly on FB) about women sometimes not being called by their professional titles are revealing an ongoing form of prejudice.

  4. freshhell permalink
    September 15, 2011 9:32 am

    I’m not sure I would have read it either if it hadn’t been on the book club list, though I usually do read books my sister recommends. It didn’t suck. It appears to be very autobiographical and tweaked to appeal to the Oprah crowd. It’ll be more interesting to see what her next book is about. This ground has been more than covered. Does she have anything else to write about now?

    • September 15, 2011 7:57 pm

      I’ll bet she does. Your post and your sister’s comment reminded me that I did like the way Aibileen talks–she narrates the long section I quoted, and she sounds just like my grandmother did.

  5. September 15, 2011 9:37 am

    Jeanne, I had many of the same issues that you had, and for me, I think what it came down to is the sense that the book never actually addresses the REAL issue, which is institutional racism. Because the problem is not that Hilly is a bitch; it’s that a black woman of that time period had no other options for employment other than being domestic help. Making it about the personalities involved is both silly and trivializing, and I totally agree that it is a fairy tale. It purports to be from the perspective of two black characters, but bottom line? This is the perspective of a white woman who grew up with black servants whom she watched enduring injustice and whom she also dearly loved. That’s a valid perspective of its own, but it is not a black perspective except as the black experience is filtered through the eyes of white privilege.

    I think, though, that you are perhaps dismissing it too quickly on at least one count: people who love this book aren’t responding to its grip on reality. They are responding to the fact that it’s a really, really good story, with immensely engaging characters. Also, trust me when I say that most of the women I know (people my age, I’m talking about) in the South grew up with “help.”

    • September 15, 2011 8:03 pm

      So do you agree that it wasn’t quite so black and white back then; not so easy to see that it was wrong that black women had few options in southern life?
      I did get that feeling that the person who wrote the book had grown up with black women she watched enduring injustice and who she dearly loved. Clearly they were mother figures. And who ever really understands her own mother’s point of view? It’s hard to see a mother as a complete person; there’s always some vestige of person as appendage.

  6. September 15, 2011 10:17 am

    I have not read The Help, though I have it on my TBR pile and keep putting off reading it, though so many have loved it. I will withhold judgement on it until I (if I) read it myself, but thanks for a detailed review. Perhaps the characters are one-dimensional, but maybe people are not picking it up for a reality check but just because word of mouth reviews says it is an enjoyable read. Again, I can’t say much more until I actually read it. Or perhaps, as happens with other books that bulldoze over the reading world as exampled by Twilight, people like it just because everyone else does.

    • September 15, 2011 8:04 pm

      Certainly I don’t think novels should function as reality checks. It’s the smugness that gets to me.

  7. freshhell permalink
    September 15, 2011 10:34 am

    Mumsy makes some good points. And I wonder whether the autobiographical nature is its downfall in that the author’s too close to the subject to look at it with anything but misty eyes. She tries but is too intrenched?

    And, she underscores why I liked it – a good story with good characters.

    • September 15, 2011 8:12 pm

      They are good characters. Part of my disappointment may be that they weren’t as fully rounded as I wished. Sometimes the closer a character gets to feeling like a real person, the more disappointed I am when they fall short. Minny, for instance. She was angry, but not as angry as Gretchen, who was too angry to make conversation possible. If Minny had been more like her, the novel would not have been possible.

  8. September 15, 2011 11:07 am

    @ Amanda – I confess that there are some books that i have read simply because everyone around me had read them and, for better or for worse, I wanted to have some idea what they were talking about when the subject arose. “The Help” like John Grisham’s early novels, definitely fell in that category.

    I wasn’t wild about “help” either, though for reasons different from Jeanne’s. In your copious free time (which I sure oozes out your ears!) feel free to read and comment on what others say. It sounds like we’re all over the map. More discussion, please!

    • September 15, 2011 8:14 pm

      I have now put in links to Lemming’s post about this novel, and also Elizabeth’s (Kitties) and FreshHell’s (Life in Scribbletown).
      We are all over the map. I’m enjoying that we don’t feel like we all have to necessarily agree, while trying to keep myself from doing too much in my usual smoothing-over style here in the comments.

  9. September 15, 2011 3:12 pm

    I think, as Melissa Harris Perry point out in her review of the movie (you can find the review online), it’s really a story about Skeeter, and the maids are just props. And I did kind of like Skeeter and am glad she escaped. And I also liked the part you quoted, Jeanne. So, as a piece of fluff with two good points it’s okay — but it’s a mistake to take it as anything more than that . . .

    • September 15, 2011 9:11 pm

      Of course it’s a story about Skeeter, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just wish fulfillment to think that we’d all have been like her, perceiving injustice and working to right wrongs. Nothing wrong with wish fulfillment, either, as long as you’re aware that’s what it is and don’t get to feeling all smug about it. That’s when you miss things right under your nose, like the white ladies raising money for the African children and taking advantage of the African-Americans to help them do it.

  10. September 15, 2011 11:38 pm

    Great post, so glad to see people talking about it and exploring the issues – if the book did nothing else at least it did that! Thanks for linking to my post as well :)

    • September 16, 2011 6:56 am

      I like the variety of responses you link to; your post is a good, quick perspective-enlarger (with the possibility for more thought if the reader wants it).

  11. September 15, 2011 11:59 pm

    I actually liked the book, but I don’t intend to see the movie – it feels just too lightweight (not that the book’s as heavy as it could be, given the subject, but it’s I don’t think it’s fluff). What interests me at this point is that the controversy over The Help’s historical accuracy has blown up mostly since the movie came out – and the book has been on the bestseller lists for nearly two years. You’d think more people would have noticed before this.

    • September 16, 2011 6:59 am

      Yeah…I waited to see the movie first, and that was probably a mistake. But I’m not usually all that concerned with historical (or any other kind of) accuracy in fiction. It’s made up. But I do tend to prefer the kind of fiction that I perceive as having a better effect on its readers. I’m afraid that’s my didactic side–hard to suppress.

      • September 16, 2011 8:26 am

        No, that’s not quite it. I got off on the self-deprecating thing about didacticism, but it’s more than that. I’m uneasy about some feel-good fiction. I think it makes each of us believe that we would have been the rare exception, the person who stands up for what is right. And that makes us complacent, so that whatever new evil comes along, we’re even less able to tell right from wrong.

  12. September 16, 2011 12:50 pm

    Really well done. I admire you for “taking on” such a beloved book. I enjoyed the book but I didn’t fell gaga about it. But a big part of me felt that I couldn’t possibly know if this book was authentic or real or sugarcoated in some way. It is one of those tricky subjects where I never know what to really feel about it. Thanks for sharing your mind so freely.

    • September 16, 2011 4:47 pm

      If there’s one thing I do well in life, it’s share my mind freely! :-)

  13. September 17, 2011 9:16 am

    I really liked it, despite its flaws. I read it for the second time this year for a book group, after reading all the arguments against it, and I still liked it anyway. Then this summer I saw the movie, and what I liked best about it was the performances by the two African-American actresses who played Abileen and Minnie, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. They were just wonderful, and I remember reading somewhere how tragic it is that these fine actresses don’t have more parts available. So if nothing else, the popularity of this movie has brought them some attention and hopefully some well-deserved recognition and maybe even some award nominations.

    And by the way, I’m not criticizing your opinion of the book. I have read several beloved books in the past couple of years that I just hated, so I know what it’s like to be in the minority about popular books.

  14. September 20, 2011 10:19 am

    A lot of people, including my friends, like it, and I think that’s because it’s pretty well-written.

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