Wednesday, November 03, 2010

First Wednesday Book Review Club, November 3, 2010



THE HELP, Kathryn Stockett

I read THE HELP for my book group. All of us (6) agreed it was a good read. We'd never given enough thought to the plight of black women in the nineteen sixties in the South. Few books before THE HELP gave that particular topic much thought. It might be alluded to here and there in books like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or A MEMBER OF THE WEDDING but not as a primary topic of concern by a white writer.

And yet, we had little to talk about this month. Certainly, we agreed that the African-American women in Jackson, Mississippi had been used and abused as servants in white households. Paid too little, worked too hard, loved too little by their employers, dismissed for minor reasons. Any number of indignities were forced on them.

Now I am going to cover my head as I say this but when it came down to it, it was the white woman in the book who stuck in our minds. Why? Not because she was worthy of more print but because the writer gave her more, fleshed her out beyond her black sisters. The black women were largely viewed in their role as servants. Ironic, huh? But who am I to argue with the thousands of resoundingly good reviews on Amazon?

I must come back to this: why is the one white woman in THE HELP given so much time? Why are the black women shown only in their roles as housekeepers, nannies.

Instead it is Skeeter and her trouble with her mother, boyfriend and publisher that stand out. Why couldn't we hear more about the servants' home lives? Why didn't their stories drive the plot rather than their grievances? Sorry to repeat myself here.

This book was certainly worth reading. It would have been better had it been written by Toni Morrison or Alice Walker. A black woman should have told this story and subjected the white women to minor roles. We didn't need a white woman to tell their stories. They have their own voices.

Find more book reviews at Barrie Summy's place.

17 comments:

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I appreciate your honest review...I can see how such a choice by the author would skew things.

Anonymous said...

Patti - Thanks for this thoughtful and candid review. What you say really resonated with me, and raises an interesting issue. How do people who aren't members of a given group write about that group? Tony Hillerman did it brilliantly (well, I think so, anyway) in his Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, where the main, fleshed-out, real characters are Native Americans, whereas Hillerman was not. Same thing with Margaret Coel and her Native American characters. But it's awfully hard to do.

Anonymous said...

Very good point.

A lot of movies have the same problem - the "hero" is the white person "helping" the black person, whether it is in the American South or South Africa.

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Very hard to do and it took me a while to see it. She was definitely more comfortable telling the story of the white girl.

George said...

When I read THE HELP I found it ironic that the most complete character was a white woman. Of course, you could conclude that the narrator of the book really didn't understand the black women she was writing about. You could also conclude the author really didn't understand the black characters in her book. Yet, that being said, THE HELP opened my eyes to the plight of blacks in Mississippi in the early Sixties.

Todd Mason said...

Well, you should always be game to contradict Thousands of positive reviews...when they are incomplete or wrong.

But nothing is stopping Alice Walker or Toni Morrison from taking up this subject, so blaming Stockett for taking it up the is a bit odd...but certainly taking on overpraise for it is something worthwhile.

I must admit that such films as THE LONG WALK HOME and such television as I'LL FLY AWAY are the artistic explorations I've been aware of this time and place and predicament, which are somewhat more responsible than A DRY WHITE SEASON or CRY FREEDOM or MISSISSIPPI BURNING in their dealing with the matters at hand.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Good review, Patti. It sounds like an interesting book but one that could have been better. Characterization is so important. That's what readers remember: the characters, not the plot. It sounds like "The Help" were given short shrift once again.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Exactly what I thought, George. I am certainly not sorry I read it and the writing was good--just that one problem. Oh, boy, I'll Fly Away was terrific.
She may have tried to include too many characters, Linda. Always tough to flesh out more than a few so you flesh out the ones you understand.

Anonymous said...

That's an excellent point, although the book that addressed racial discrimination the best, for me, was "Black Like Me." I read it in high school and it had a great impact on me, although it was about a man and not a woman.

Yvette said...

I wasn't crazy about this book. The only reason I read it was because a dear friend sent it to me and raved about it being one of her all time favorites - so of course, I had to read it.

But I realized early on I wasn't going to like the book. I lived through those times as a young girl growing up in the 50's and 60's. It seems now as if every night there was a new headline in the papers about some new racial atrocity committed in the South.
I still can't think about Medger Evers without feeling outrage and anger - don't like to see this incident written about in a novel, adding 'color' to a plot. I'm sure the author meant well, but still, I don't like seeing the Evers family used in this way.

The book made me uneasy. I thought it was unnecessarily melodramatic (the real events of the times were dramatic enough)and a bit condescending.

Todd Mason said...

Medgar Evers...one of the Other insane assassinations of 1963.

Anonymous said...

Todd named the exact ones I was thinking of: MISSISSIPPI BURNING, CRY FREEDOM and A DRY WHITE SEASON.

I liked I'LL FLY AWAY a lot.

Jeff M.

Sarah Laurence said...

Your complaint was mine too – it made me stop reading this book. Excellent review!

I'd recommend The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow and Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead for more authentic and well developed characters of color.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks!

Deb said...

I'll echo what Jeff said--this book reminds me too much of something like "Mississippi Burning": Very self-congratulatory about the role white people played in bringing about civil rights for black people. On the whole, I have to say I'll pass.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Again, the topic was a good one; the presentation made me cringe.

Barrie said...

Very interesting, Patti. The fact that your entire book club had the same reaction says something. Like Kathy, Black Like Me really touched me when I read it in high school. It touched my son who read it last year. Thanks for the review!