Friday, August 14, 2009

What I'm Reading Now-The Help

Waaaaaay back when, I put out a call for other bloggers to help me get caught up on my book reviews. Several people were kind enough to respond with questions for me, so I figure I will try to tackle a few more of them today.

Cover of "The Help"Cover of The Help
The Help by Kathryn Stockett-Eva said, "The Help has been getting a lot of hype in the blogosphere. Is it worth it?" I think so-I loved this book. Aibileen and Minny are two black women in 1960's Mississippi, employed as domestic workers for white families. Skeeter Phelan is a friend of Aibileen's employer, and she is looking around at her group of friends and starting to wonder if maybe they aren't all the paragons of virtue they think they are.

Hilly Holbrook has begun campaigning for the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, a bill that would require every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help because "Everybody knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do." Hilly just gets more and more loveable as the book goes on (I'm being sarcastic, in case any of you can't see my eyes rolling all the way back in my skull over here), but Skeeter doesn't quite feel the same way as the rest of her friends and wants to try to do something to change things. She wants to write a book telling the world what it's really like for the black domestic workers in the South, what it's like to be the help. She starts by talking to Aibileen who is, understandably, skeptical of Skeeter and her motives at first and worried about what will happen to her if she speaks out and tells the truth, tells the world that, honestly, being somebody else's maid is not the bees knees, and no, white people aren't always above reproach. Even with Aibileen's contributions, Skeeter still needs to get other stories, and she enlists Aibileen's help to try to convince other maids to tell their stories. It's an uphill battle all-around, for everyone involved, and I loved the characters and what they come together to do and how they do it.

My cousin started reading this book before I did, and she mentioned that one of the characters is a sassy black maid who reminded her a lot of my dad. I thought this was kind of funny since my dad is neither a black woman nor a maid, and, while he is a pretty funny guy, I don't know if he exactly qualifies as "sassy." I totally forgot about this remark until after I'd finished the book and I mentioned that Aibileen reminded me of my (paternal) grandma. The way she talks and the way her speech was written reminded me of the way my grandma talks and writes. My cousin said, "That's so weird because Minny reminded me of your dad!" and, yeah, I can totally see what she means. The following exchange between Minny and her new employer, Miss Celia, is a good example of this. Miss Celia has hired Minny to come work for her, but she hasn't told her husband, and Minny is a little worried about the possible ramifications of this.

"And what's Mister Johnny gone do if he come home and find a colored woman up in his kitchen?"

"I'm sorry, I just can't--"

"I'll tell you what he's gone do, he's gone get that pistol and shoot Minny dead right here on this no-wax floor."

Miss Celia shakes her head. "I'm not telling him."

"Then I got to go," I say. Shit. I knew it. I knew she was crazy when I walked in the door--

"It's not that I'd be fibbing to him. I just need a maid--"

"A course you need a maid. Last one done got shot in the head."

This is totally the type of thing my dad would say!

Softdrink is looking forward to The Help (has just read and reviewed The Help) and wanted to know, "Would you put it in your top 10 for the year? Top 5?" Definitely, on both counts! As I said, I really enjoyed the different characters. With the exception of one chapter, the story is told from Aibileen's, Minny's and Miss Skeeter's points of view, but even the non-narrative characters have great presences (is that really a word? Presences...doesn't sound right...anyway...), at least the women do. There are a few men that make their appearances in this novel, and we don't really get much of a feel for them, but this isn't really their story anyway.

Something of note here: I read this for our book club, and the book club members who were present for the discussion of this book were 3 white girls in their 30s, and one mixed-race gentleman in his 60s who grew up in the South. All of us girls loved the book; he thought it was one of the most depressing things he'd ever read. Now, admittedly, he hadn't finished the book, but I thought it was interesting that we had such different takes on it. Even when I was only part-way through the book, it never struck me that way. For him it was just bringing up all the terrible things that he knew from first-hand experience had actually happened in our history. For us, or at least for me, it was knowing that we had come through those things and were now on the other side of history, not perfect, but at least better than we were. Also, it was about the women who were fighting against those things; trying to make things better; doing what they could, against tremendous odds, to make their voices heard. Unfortunately, I've never been able to get much follow-up from this man on his thoughts on the book after he finished it, but if I ever do, I'll come back here and update.

Sorry, I feel like this review is all over the place. Takeaway: I really enjoyed this book, but now I'm curious if it is a common phenomenon for different people to respond to it differently depending on what their backgrounds are. I mean, I suppose that's the case with almost any book, but this is the first time that I've experienced a divide this extreme, more than the usual, "I really liked it!" "Really? I thought it was boring." Anyone else have any input on this?

Other reviews:

I'm sure there are more people out there who have read this! If you have and you've reviewed it, let me know and I'll post a link to your review. If you haven't reviewed it, feel free to let me know what you thought of it here!


Kari said...

That's an interesting story you told about the man in your book club. And I agree with you on reasons why someone closer to our generation and situation may view the book in a more positive light. To me, it is nice to see the positive changes that have occurred since this story takes place.

My mom actually just read this book and loved it. She grew up in Nashville and says she remembers riding the bus downtown in the fifties and African-Americans sitting in the back. She was 10 or under around then, so she says she never knew what it really meant but it was definitely noticed. She also said that her family had their own help of sorts, an African-American woman who would work with her mom (my grandma) during the day. This lady would go on vacations with them and as they drove to Florida, she said her dad had to bring food out to her in the car because she wasn't allowed in the restaurant. By the sixties, things weren't as segregated in Nashville as they were in the deep, rural south, but one of my favorite things about reading this book was the stories that I got to hear from my mom afterward.

Well, now that I've written a novel on here...I'm done. :)

Lisa (Southern Girl Reads) said...

That is very interesting about the reaction from the black man in your club. It really does surprise me that he found it depressing. I agree that it was a depressing time for blacks, but I would think that the story of these women coming together to take a stand would have a positive reaction from him. Granted, he did live through those times and most certainly has distinct memories but I feel the author is trying to tell a positive story about a very difficult time.

Thanks so much for adding my link to your review. I'm glad you enjoyed the book as well!

Dreamybee said...

Kari-That's neat that this book provided a chance for you to learn more about your mother's childhood. You mentioned your grandfather having to bring food out to the car-I guess that's one of the things that is so perplexing about this whole era is that colored people were seen as not good enough to eat in the same restaurants, too dirty to use the same restrooms, not intelligent or civilized enough to run their own lives basically, and yet they were still allowed to raise all the white children. Conversely, people who had help could see that they were loving, civilized, not noticeably diseased, etc., and yet they still put up with things like being inconvenienced on a road trip if they brought their help with them. I don't know. So much about that time is so perplexing. I guess what's even more perplexing is knowing that there are still people out there who think this way.

Thanks for stopping by!

Lisa-Glad to do it, and I'm glad you stopped by!

Yes, I agree that the author was trying to tell a positive story; I felt hopeful when I was done reading it. I can understand how remembering that time in history (vs. just reading about it) would be depressing, but I hope the rest of the book turned things around for him!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

What a great review. Sounds like this book evoked lots of emotion within your group.

So happy you enjoyed this book as much as I did.

Dreamybee said...

Thanks, Diane. I'm glad I liked it this much too!

Anonymous said...

My reaction (to most any book set in the south) is thank god my grandparents moved away from Mississippi when my dad was a kid. Despite all the progress, I'm glad I wasn't raised in a part of the country where you walk around and still see the Confederate flag in places.

Still, though, it doesn't make me depressed. And I think it's important for our generation to be able to experience, even through novels, what it was like in the South.

Dreamybee said...

Softdrink-Like you said, a lot of progress has been made, but it's scary how much progress still needs to be made. I agree that it's important for people to read about this part of our history-it wasn't that long ago, and I think it's important for people to know the kind of things that happened and to see the ways in which small acts of bravery can make a difference.

Jeanne said...

I've read a few reviews of this one, but yours is the one that convinces me I've got to read it. I can't resist a book that gets such different reactions from different people!

Dreamybee said...

I hope you enjoy it-come back and let me know what you thought. :)

Care said...

GReat discussions here! I could think of a few flaws w/ the book but I still loved it more than cared to nitpick it. (ie, Hilly was just TOO mean.) lovely book!!

Dreamybee said...

She WAS terrible, wasn't she! Her character seems so over the top, but I suspect that there were plenty of people who felt and acted just like she did, so for me her character didn't detract from the book at all; but, boy, she sure was hard to take!

trish said...

I had an interesting discussion with my mother-in-law about this book.

Around this time, my MIL was living in the South, and schools were supposed to be starting to integrate. Well, my MIL was living on a military base, and the commander of that military base decided to set the example and send his daughter to an all-black school. On the first or second day, she was trapped in the bathroom by a few girls and they cut her face up, giving her scars that would last her lifetime. My MIL was obviously upset by this, because she didn't understand how someone could put their child in that kind of danger.

I thought this was interesting, because I know bad things were happening to people at this time, but look how far we've come, arguably BECAUSE OF those people. Those people who were tormented or beat up or whatever, they are the ones who really helped further equality in America. But maybe that's easy for me to say since I didn't have to go through it?

Dreamybee said...

Wow, how sad that that was the outcome of that particular situation. I bet that didn't do anything to help people's attitudes at the time.

I think you're right though-sadly, major changes in human rights rarely happen without somebody getting hurt. Anytime someone decides to stand up and challenge the status quo, it's going to anger somebody else to the point that they're going to be willing to take drastic action to keep things the way they are. While that drastic action usually ends up being something terrible and hurtful, it's often the thing that finally makes people stand up and go, "Whoa. This has gone too far."

I understand what you're saying though. It's sort of a do-the-end-justify-the-means question, and who am I to say that someone's daughter or brother or mother's life was worth the cause, especially if they were an unwilling participant in the first place? Could we have gotten to the same place that we are today without all the violence? Who knows.