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The Help by Kathryn Stockett; Review

January 26, 2010

Title: The Help

Author: Kathryn Stockett

Published: February 10, 2009 by Penguin Group

Number of Pages: 464

Rating: 4/5

Quote: (Sorry it’s so long. I couldn’t shorten it because it’s my favorite part of the book and chopping it up seems like blasphemy.)

“’Mae Mobley? Mae Mobley Leefolt!’

“Miss Leefolt just now noticing her child ain’t setting in the same room with her. ‘She out here with me, Miss Leefolt,’ I say through the screen door.

“’I told you to eat in your highchair, Mae Mobley. How I ended up with you when all my friends have angels I just don’t know…’ But then the phone ring and I hear her stomping off to get it.

“I look down at Baby Girl, see how her forehead’s all wrinkled up between the eyes. She studying hard on something.

“I touch her cheek. ‘You alright, baby?’

“She say, ‘Mae Mo bad.’

“The way she say it, like it’s a fact, make my insides hurt.

“’Mae Mobley,’ I say cause I got a notion to try something. ‘You a smart girl?’

“She just look at me, like she don’t know.

“’You a smart girl,’ I say again.

“She say, ‘Mae Mo smart.’

“I say, ‘You a kind little girl?’

“She look at me. She two years old. She don’t know what she is yet.

“I say, ‘You a kind girl,’ and she nod, repeat it back to me. But before I can do another one, she get up and chase that poor dog around the yard and laugh and that’s when I get to wondering, what would happen if I told her she something good, ever day?

“She turn from the birdbath and smile and holler, ‘Hi, Aibee. I love you, Aibee,’ and I feel a tickly feeling, soft like the flap a butterfly wings, watching her play out there. The way I used to feel watching Treelore. And that makes me a kind a sad, memoring.

“After while, Mae Mobley come over and press her cheek up to mine and just hold it there, like she know I’ll be hurting. I hold her tight, whisper, ‘You a smart girl. You a kind girl, Mae Mobley. You hear me?’ And I keep saying it till she repeat it back to me.”

Review:

I’d heard so much about The Help before I decided to read it, but it wasn’t until I put a hold on it online that I realized what sort of book I was dealing with – I was approximately hold 378 of 378 holds. Whoa. So, naturally, I was intrigued and very happy to borrow a copy from one of my mom’s friends.

The Help deals with a time and topic that I have a great interest in. I search out books set in and around times when racial tension was at its highest. Gone with the Wind, which I read in fifth grade, planted the seed that sprouted into that interest. I also thought the point of view of The Help (which, for the most part, was actually that of “the help” – the black maids that worked for white women in the 1960’s – the time of the Civil Rights act and Martin Luther King, i.e. an epic time in US history) was a fascinating one and one that was entirely new to me.

Once I opened the book and began my read, it took me some time to adapt to the slightly illiterate voice of Aibileen, the first maid from whose POV we read. Not surprisingly, she was not very well educated, and that’s reflected in her voice.  While a hindrance to fluid reading at times, I am fond of touches of like this, and enjoyed Aibileen’s sweet but blunt way of relating events. Later, we’d be introduced to Minny, another maid, and Miss Skeeter, a white young woman. Note: You’re going to love Minny. She’s such a sassy, pain-in-the-butt. It’s endearing. Miss Skeeter I liked as well for a few reasons, two of which were 1) She’s a writer and I like that quality and 2) She’s quite a decent person, an even more important attribute.

The Help tells the story of black women in a time dominated by white people. It tells the truth, as an 83-year-old friend of mine can testify.

Miss Skeeter, twenty years old, tall, and unattractive, just wants to write, move out of her parents’ house, and get her mom off her back. Then, she finds herself becoming more and more interested in the lives of black women after asking Aibileen, her friend’s maid, for help with her advice column in the local newspaper. Not a safe interest. Not one people respect. With a friend like Miss Hilly, deceptive and very, very pro-segregation, Skeeter should probably sleep with a knife under her pillow.

A forbidden interest Skeeter could handle, until she became determined to record the stories of the black women she had hardly noticed before. With Aibileen’s help, Skeeter starts out on a mission to make these women’s voices heard.

And that’s only what I consider to be the main plot. The Help is engorged with subplots, some touching, some disturbing, and some hopeless. You’ll feel a large range of emotions while reading this book.

The alternating POVs are ideal for giving us the inside scoop on multiple situations. Stockett uses the different POVs just as an author should – to keep you reading until your eyes hurt. Every time she switched, she left the last section hanging, sending me off to count the chapters until we returned to the POV from which I had been reading. Of course, I’d finally reach that point, but I’d already be counting the chapters to another character’s section. It’s maddening but very effective. (Writers: I recommend this strategy.)

I loved that the book didn’t hide behind a veil of fluff and inconsequential details. Just as Aibileen was, the book was blunt and treated the serious topic as it should be – seriously. At the same time, it wasn’t full of the Ku Klux Klan and brutal murders (although there was one of those…). It didn’t call all white women evil devils. The book was reasonable. It was a story of these women’s lives, fictional, of course, but entirely plausible. Because of that fact, we felt for the women in the story and the women those characters embodied.

I’d certainly recommend The Help to book clubs as it’s full of wonderful discussion topics. I’d also recommend it to anyone on the look-out for books that make them think – about the pros and cons of human nature, revolution, etc. When I think back on The Help, I can’t help but ponder a topic that I think was only vaguely addressed: The hope we have in the next generations. The hope that they’ll learn from our mistakes and instead make their own ones – maybe just as stupid, but still different.

On the downside, my aunt did make a good point: That the last fifty to one hundred pages felt like a screenplay, felt as if they were meant to be filmed. I didn’t notice it until I thought back, but it’s a good point – they sort of did.

All in all, I thought The Help was a heartening, reassuring, and riveting story. It’s worth a read, even if you’re hold 257 of 257 holds.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Denise Bohbot permalink
    February 1, 2010 1:21 PM

    I really like your review. It brought back thoughts I had while delving into the lives of these fictional, but as you note, plausible women. I, too, found that it took some time to adjust to the voices of the black maids (this aspect reminded me of “The Color Purple”).

    Happy reading and writing to you!

  2. January 29, 2010 6:20 AM

    Great review! I’ve been coveting this book for some time now. Hope it’ll come to the bookstores where I’m at soon. 🙂

  3. January 27, 2010 3:24 AM

    Great review! You’ve quoted one of my favorite passages, too.

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