One-Minute Book Reviews

March 9, 2009

Are Y’all Payin’ Attention? Ah May Be a Yankee From New Jersey, But Ah Might Could Have a Review for Y’all of Kathryn Stockett’s Novel, ‘The Help’

A New York Times bestseller describes the mistreatment of black maids at the dawn of the civil rights era

The Help: A Novel. By Kathryn Stockett. Putnam’s/Amy Einhorn Books, 464 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Forty-five literary agents rejected The Help, and although that’s not an alpine number in today’s market, it’s easy to imagine why they did. A white University of Alabama graduate has written much of her first novel in the alternating voices of two black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s – as though Margaret Mitchell weren’t still taking heat, 60 years after her death, for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind.

For anybody who isn’t put off by the transracial ventriloquism, The Help may hold surprises. Kathryn Stockett tells the story of a white Ole Miss graduate who returns to her well-off parents’ cotton farm, cringes when she sees how her friends treat their “help,” and vows with the secret cooperation of the maids to write a book that exposes the abuses. There’s a lot to expose.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has rejoined a world in which maids work for less the minimum wage and must wear uniforms if they attend the weddings of children they helped raise. They must use dishes and bathrooms their employers don’t. And if they protest these and many other indignities, they may be fired and blackballed by women who can keep them from working again in their towns. In their off hours, they face all the other injustices of segregation, including that can’t use white hotels, restaurants and libraries.

The Help falls into the category that publishers call “mainstream women’s fiction” and has many of its hallmarks, such as a subplot involving Skeeter’s romance with the callow son of a politician. And yet it has something rarely found in novels that have as much pink on their covers as this one does: sustained social commentary. Stockett describes the results of a silent auction at the Junior League Annual Ball and Benefit in Jackson:

“As names are read, items are received with the excitement of someone winning a real contest, as if the booty were free and not paid for at three, four, or five times the store value. Tablecloths and nightgowns with the lace tatted by hand bring in high bids. Odd sterling servers are popular, for spooning out deviled eggs, removing pimentos from olives, cracking quail legs.”

That is sharper and more interesting writing than you will find in many novels with more literary pretensions, and it makes you wonder what Stockett could do if she gave a free rein to her satirical instincts. In some ways The Help resembles The Nanny Diaries, though the plot is more far-fetched and the writing less polished. Justice comes for the household employees, to the degree that it arrives at all, at scalper’s prices. Students of the abuses of the Jim Crow era may find much of The Help unsurprising, but the collective memory of those abuses is fading. This novel would be welcome if only because it will help to keep the hidden cruelties alive both for those who have never known of them and for those who would prefer to forget.

Best line: The belles of The Help know that before you marry, you can never give too much thought to choosing a silverware pattern. One woman says: “Skeeter, you’re so lucky to come from a Francis the First family pattern.”

Worst line: The black maids often say things like: “Law, my phone was disconnected cause I’s short this month.” And Stockett makes phonetic substitutions in their speech but not usually in their employers’. Given that her black characters say things like “terrified a” instead of “terrified of,” shouldn’t some of her whites be saying “Ah can’t” instead of “I can’t”? Ah may be a Yankee, but ah think they might could, because ah know how often writers done been tryin’ to show how white people talk in New Jersey.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2009

About the author: Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and lives in Atlanta.

Mini reading group guide to The Help: 3 Discussion questions for book clubs: 1) So, did y’all think Stockett was brave or insane for writing in the voices of Aibileen and Minny?

2) Janet Maslin wrote of The Help in her New York Times review: “It’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions. And it celebrates noblesse oblige so readily that Skeeter’s act of daring earns her a gift from a local black church congregation.” How much truth does this comment contain?

3) Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote in her review in Ms.: “As an African American, I accept black idioms as an aesthetic choice, but they nonetheless grated. Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have? There’s also the narrative rut of downtrodden but world-wise blacks showing white people their own souls, leading them out of a spiritual wilderness to their better selves. The Help has much more on its mind than that, but it doesn’t avoid going down a road too well traveled.” Do you agree or disagree?

Furthermore: The Help is #30 on the most recent New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

10 Comments »

  1. Hi, Janice. Great review on your part. I found The Help a very interesting read, really unputdownable at times. I look forward to seeing what the author does for her next book. I also think you raised an excellent point about how the dialect should have been done consistently with all the Southern characters if done it all.

    I did have a look at the Ms. Magazine review by Erin Aubry Kaplan — and, eeek, it might hold the distinction of being one of the most hostile reviews I’ve ever read of a book (and that’s saying something). I get the feeling that Kaplan labored long and hard over her review to achieve a tone of emotional “detachment”, knowing that an outright slam would be more easily dismissed by readers. Look at how every weak “compliment” she pays to the author (so that she can seem even-handed) is undercut by either a weasel-word like “somewhat” that negates the positive, or an outright negative. :: shudders :: It gave me the creeps to read it (her review, not yours which actually was even-handed).

    Comment by Val Kovalin — March 9, 2009 @ 10:47 am | Reply

  2. Hi, Val –
    Do you think The Help is going to be one of those books that most people love or hate? This novel has been out for only a few weeks, but I know several people who tore through it in a couple of sittings and loved it.

    But I also described it to another friend (a white educated woman from the Deep South), and when I mentioned that much of it consists of an attempt to reproduce the maids’ speech, she said immediately, “Oh, I hate that.”

    I can see both points of view. Stockett’s decision to write in the voices of the maids’ was a risk. But I can see why she took it. The cruelties of the Jim Crow era weren’t perpetrated only by sheriffs with bullhorns but by well-off women in white gloves. And it’s worth reminding people of it.

    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 9, 2009 @ 11:29 am | Reply

  3. You asked: “Do you think The Help is going to be one of those books that most people love or hate?”

    That’s a good question. I think that most readers will probably enjoy it for the same reasons I did: it’s well-written, the characters are engaging, and the setting feels vivid and authentic. Your average reader will pick up the book because of the beautiful cover or because it’s getting a lot of press and their book-club chooses it, and they’ll have no problems with it.

    Then there are those readers who are impersonally turned off by certain stylistic and thematic aspects: they find dialect distracting or they’re tired of novels about the South. Or they don’t like “women’s fiction.” Those readers will probably skip the book, and rightly so. It’s not going to be their cup of tea.

    Then there are the readers who might have personal reasons to be wary of its subject matter: some black readers, some Southern readers. Both groups of readers have had to put up with a lot of irritating misrepresentation that affects them personally. I think if they gave it a chance, most might be pleasantly surprised.

    I liked it because I found it well-written and I found the details of Jackson, Mississippi to be so vivid. I value fiction that shows me a world (the Deep South in this case) that I’m unfamiliar with. Those details about the Junior League and about Skeeter’s cotton-farm upbringing (how she had to go on her date in a farm truck, towing a huge tractor) were priceless!

    Plus, I had no idea that the Jim Crow laws/mindset were as detailed, engrained, and bizarre as the author showed them to be — I mean, the whole thing with the separate eating utensils and the white ladies’ beliefs as to why they had to do this? Bizarre! I agree with you that it’s worth reminding readers about it.

    Comment by Val Kovalin — March 9, 2009 @ 12:19 pm | Reply

    • My favorite detail might be the one about people bidding at the Junior League auction on sterling-silver devices for cracking quail legs. You might be able to search the entire state of New Jersey without finding one of those. :)

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 9, 2009 @ 12:47 pm | Reply

  4. A good review. I’m a Black Brit and half way through the book. So far, I find it intriguing. I just wish there were more African American reviews on this to know what the community thinks. When I met Bonnie Greer sometime back in London, (which was well before the book was released) she did say in a talk she gave that if you wanted to know what the ‘black point of view’ was during the days of slavery, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was not the book to turn to but Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as that was ‘Mammy’s’ perspective.

    So far, I find The Help a riveting read: I love the no-nonsense attitude of Minny but wonder if a black maid who wasn’t scared not to fear white people was realistic; I like the cool balance of Aibileen and how she acts as a mediator between Skeeter and Minny without forgetting to be conscious of her own survival and then the determination and perseverance of Skeeter. Even though you can’t help but feel at the end of the day, with Skeeter, ambition plays a greater part than her concern about Minny and Aibileen. But I also find it interesting that Stockett had to make Skeeter gawky and awkward in order to ‘place’ her with Minny and Aibileen. It makes you feel that as Skeeter is slightly flawed, it would have been the only way the author could have a rich white female complementing the black female characters. I just get the feeling that the author, for some reason, would not have felt comfortable if Skeeter were a pretty blue eyed blonde.

    Comment by plaintain1 — June 20, 2010 @ 5:47 pm | Reply

    • Interesting observation about why KS may have made Skeeter gawky. I hadn’t thought of that.

      Another possible explanation: Stockett is fair-haired, pretty and poised. And especially with first novels, authors often go to great lengths to deflect the idea that a novel might be “autobiographical” because they want it to be read as fiction instead of nonfiction. So in making Skeeter gawky, Stockett may have been trying to head off comparisons with her own life.

      Possibly what was going on here was a combination of your and my ideas. Thanks so for your comment!
      Jan

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 20, 2010 @ 9:16 pm | Reply

      • Just a question – do you know if there are any nonfiction books based on the experiences of black domestic staff during the 60s? If so, please give details as I’d very much want to read.
        Many thanks

        Comment by plaintain1 — July 7, 2010 @ 6:38 am

  5. Plaintain1: I don’t, but this is a good question, and I’m sure the answer would interest many people, so I’m going to raise spp on my Twitter page (www.twitter.com/janiceharayda). Thanks! Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 7, 2010 @ 11:23 am | Reply

  6. Thanks for a great review, Janice. I wasn’t nearly as put off as the way the speech was written as a friend of mine was. I guess I have come to expect it from white authors writing black characters. My review is here:

    http://mizparker.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/the-help/

    Comment by Miz Parker — May 23, 2011 @ 3:04 pm | Reply


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