The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.

Kathryn Stockett “truly prize[s]” that “one line”. If that sounds to you like a “line” to be “prized”, then this is your book. If not, not.

The Help is one of those books that starts with an intriguing idea and good intentions. On those two strengths, it gains a large audience. I suppose there is a little more going for it. The themes it hoped to address are important and worthy of exploration; the story moves along even if the movement is utterly predictable; the characters are likeable if decidedly not complex. Basically, the book does not demand much from the reader other than a tolerance for, or oblivion to, mediocre writing and poor editing.

Did I mention well-intentioned? Because the novel is well-intentioned. There is some heart in there. I can see how it tugs at a certain kind of reader, keeps them going, makes them feel warm and fuzzy. After all, the book was essentially Kathryn Stockett’s labor of appreciation, if not love, for the woman who helped her parents raise her.

The book opens being narrated by Aibileen in August of 1962. Aibileen is a maid for a wealthy family in Jackson, Mississippi. She speaks in a distinctive dialect:

Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime.

One of Aibileen’s best friends, Minny, is another maid-narrator with her own chapters. Where Aibileen is a wise, quiet, and strong woman, Minny is loud, brash, and wise too. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is the third narrator. She a white woman who speak perfect English. Same as all her friends.

An interesting authorial choice of Stockett’s is that Aibileen speaks and writes in dialect, but is able to transcribe Skeeter’s and the other white women’s conversations with impeccable attention to their perfect diction and grammar. She’s a human tape recorder is what she is.

My tone betrays me. I think the book, while meaning well, fails to engage important racial issues or to provide insight into the mindset of “the help” in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. It is quite revealing regarding the way in which “enlightened” white people who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi view the world.

The plot involves various struggles and difficulties faced by the oppressed black maids. The struggles and difficulties are almost entirely caused by or exacerbated by their rich, white, female employers who, except for the clueless Skeeter (unintentionally modeled a little too faithfully on the author) and the formerly-poor and currently-stupid Celia, are almost uniformly mean, racist, petty, spineless, conniving, or some combination thereof. Perhaps, this is to make up for the dialect thing.

Don’t ask about the men.

Skeeter wants to be a writer, Aibileen wants to raise (white) children, and Minny is a necessary device to move the plot, inject some predictable unpredictability, and ease some of Aibileen’s load as the prototypical “help”. Skeeter ends up hitting on the idea of writing about life in Jackson, Mississippi from the perspective of the maids.

The dialect issue is a problem. It is jarring, partly because Stockett seemed to go half-hearted. I say half-hearted both because only certain words seem affected (e.g. “Law” for “Lord”, “a” for “of”, and “on” for “going to” are the most prominent substitutions while you won’t find anyone dropping g’s; and the screwing up of noun-verb-tense agreement by “the help” like: “She glance out at the drive…” instead of “She glances…”) and because, as I already mentioned, the white characters have no ungrammatical tics or improper pronunciations. This is remarkable given that the dialectical distinctions are noted even among the white children, many of whom are primarily raised by the maids with poor diction.

“Aibee, my froat hurts.” [Four year-old Mae Mobley]

“I–I be right there, baby.” [Aibileen.]

Mae Mobley’s mother pays very little attention to her, while Mae Mobley seems to spend almost every waking moment with Aibileen. Yet, Mae Mobley, who can’t pronounce throat, can correctly manage noun-verb-tense agreement and Aibileen can’t, even when she writes.

To some extent maybe Stockett could not win or felt like she could not win. That might explain the seemingly tentative rendering of dialect. If she had tried to be perfectly faithful, she might seem even more out of touch. But, still, her choices in conveying dialect raise questions of authenticity and the author’s understanding of her characters. It conveys a sense that there is still, in her mind, an us and them, just that “[n]ot that much separates us.” But we are still separate.

This impression is reinforced by Skeeter’s unfortunate description of one of the maids she interviews:

“She spoke evenly and with care, like a white person.”

Yeah, from my childhood in the South, that’s definitely how I recall white southerners speaking: evenly and with care.

The characters reinforce this interpretation of Stockett’s own mindset. While the white characters are almost all bad and the black characters are almost all “good” (except for the men), only with the help of Skeeter do they find their voice. I found the plot condescending, in other words.

Some technical aspects of Stockett’s writing were annoying. A small point is her transparent use of “the Terrible Awful Thing” which, of course, is only called by the name “Terrible Awful” until late in the book to maintain some suspense. The thing is neither terrible nor awful.

[Another irritatingly bad feature was the cliched characterization of villains. For instance,] Hilly, the primary villain, suffers from a cold sore on her lip. [edited 6-8-10 thanks to Ramsey’s comment below]

I should point out the good too. The best sentence in the book (that I recall) is when Skeeter describes her mother driving:

At the end of the lane, she puts on her blinker like she’s doing brain surgery and creeps the Cadillac out onto the County Road.

The occasional well-wrought sentence does not make wading through some of the very poorly written sentences worth the slog. Then there is the fact that almost all of the characters pause at….odd times. And every pause is captured. I could barely stand it after awhile. On one Kindle screen, Skeeter gives us:

“Me too what…sir?”

“I don’t…dislike you, sir,” I say, shifting in my flats.

“I know he was very…upset,” I say, when truthfully, I know almost nothing at all.

Most of the other characters have the same…problem:

“You looked mighty…sure a yourself.” [Minny]

“So Hilly…she probably thinks I was fooling around with Johnny while they were still going steady then.” [Celia]

“And you look very…glamorous tonight.” [Julia Fenway]

“I was…feeling so warm in here.” [Elizabeth]

“These next few months are going to be…pretty hard.” [Doctor Neal]

Sometimes the pause is not an ellipsis, but a dash:

“I’ll be gone and–I don’t know.”

I don’t know either.

Perhaps my favorite example, in a “dark and stormy night” kind of way:

“This is what you’ve been writing about for the past twelve months? Not…Jesus Christ?”

“No, Stuart. Not…Jesus.”

Jesus.

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42 Responses to The Help by Kathryn Stockett

  1. The book may have been … terrible but the review is the … funniest thing I have read in a long time, eh? (We don’t have a lot of dialect in Canada, although there is some aboot.) Thanks, Kerry.

  2. Kerry says:

    I am glad my pain has amused you. While you are quite welcome, I still wish I had those hours back.

    Needless to say, this will not be my own selection for the Rooster.

    • Owen says:

      Perhaps you would have enjoyed the book more if you had removed the stick from your ass first.

      • Kerry says:

        Thank you for caring enough about my reading enjoyment to propose strategies to enhance my reading pleasure. And I am particularly happy that you grasped the essence of how it felt for me to read this book.

  3. kimbofo says:

    Oh, I agree with Kevin, this review made me laugh out loud…especially the bit…about…the…pauses! ūüėČ

    I have read a lot of great reviews about this book on other blogs, but when I picked up the book in a bookstore and read the blurb and saw the terrible cover, I wasn’t sure it was for me. Your review has only added to this opinion.

    It sounds like a book for white people, no?

  4. Teresa says:

    Ah, this review confirms everything I suspected about this book. It appears to be universally loved merely because of its good intentions, but something about it (and about the glowing reviews I’ve read) led me to think that the fine intentions were packaged in a clumsy mass of stereotypes, pretty much just as you’ve described it.

    My book club was going to read it this year, and I was strangely relieved when the club folded and I could mark it off my list. I may yet give in to the pressure and read it, but I think I’ll bookmark your review to help hold me back when I’m tempted by the overwhelming praise.

  5. Kerry says:

    [Kimbofo]

    Glad I made you laugh. And you returned the favor with your last line.

    Yeah, I think probably so. But not all white people. Only a certain kind of white person, I think, can trip past the dialect issues, the portrayal of race relations, the hero white person helping out the minorities (ala Dances with Wolves only not as well done), and the writing with enjoyment. I am not one of them.

  6. Kerry says:

    Teresa,

    “a clumsy mass of stereotypes” is almost exactly right, wrapped in cliches probably cinches it.

    Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. If you should happen to give in to the pressure, please let me know what you think, whether I have been too harsh.

  7. I had no intention of ever reading this book. Like Theresa I suspected it would be “a clumsy mass of stereoptypes”, with lots of feel-good political correctness, which I wished I could enjoy, but which I know would only leave me exasperated. Anyway, I am very glad that you wasted some precious time reading it and blogging about it. This is definitely one of the funniest post I have read recently.

  8. Kerry says:

    Thank you, Anna. I am very pleased you enjoyed. I was certainly hoping someone would get vicarious enjoyment from The Help. Or maybe you guys all just like to see me writhe in pain. At any rate, perhaps I should read more poorly written books so my blog will be more entertaining.

    Thanks, as always, for your comment.

  9. I love that description – “an intriguing idea and good intentions”. I’ve read a few books like that in my time. I must say that I hadn’t heard of it and, it sounds like. that’s no bad thing. Thanks for the heads up…Reading your review provided all the entertainment I think I need from this book!

    • Well, last night, having eschewed reading this book I decided to see it with friends. It sounded like the sort of book one should see (if anything). I’ve glad because I’d heard so much about it – in the months following your review – that I was intrigued though not interested in reading it. Your review works pretty much for the film – well-intentioned but both too soft, too caricatured and too predictable to properly convey the horror of the reality of the times. That said the movie wasn’t awful … just not great.

      • Kerry says:

        While, having staked my opposition, I am contractually bound not to applaud your having seen the movie, I do think that is preferable than spending the much longer time reading the book. And, to be fair, the book is readable if you ignore very mediocre writing, the questionable choices relating to dialect, the caricatures, and the predictability.

        My wife wants to read it and I do have it on hand (no, I didn’t burn it). I am both interested in and frightened of her reaction. Our tastes diverge wildly, so things I hate she may not even notice (and vice versa for books that she dislikes that I adore). And, yes, this implies she hasn’t read my review which, based on a conversation we happened to have last night, it appears she has not. [Advertisement for the movie.] “I want to read that book. If I recall correctly, you didn’t like it much, did you?”……heh……

  10. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Whispering.

    You are welcome for the heads up. I think you are making a wise choice in taking a pass.

  11. Brilliant, I felt your pain, and laughed at it.

    Great review. Perhaps a nice Pushkin Press or NYRB Classic or similar next, something definitely good for a palate cleanser. You’ve certainly earned it.

  12. Sarah says:

    What a sadistic lot! But I will have to join them, having also immensely enjoyed your literary suffering. Better luck with your next pick, but don’t leave off reading the poorly written altogether, will you?

  13. Kerry says:

    Max and Sarah, Thank you both very much for your comments. The palate cleanser is a great idea. I will say, the first book after The Help will probably overrated simply due to the comparison.

    I am ready for a classic as soon as I can get through the 2010 TOB selections. I still have a number of those to go.

  14. […] HW: “[T]he book does not demand much from the reader other than a tolerance for, or oblivion to, mediocre writing and poor editing.” […]

  15. Lija says:

    I just got this at a book swap, but now feel pretty reluctant to start it. The pausing thing would kill me!

  16. Kerry says:

    The pausing thing is annoying, probably more so now that I point it out. Sorry.

    The Help is not hard to read (until you become annoyed with…everything). If you have it in hand, the story is fairly engaging for all its predictability. I would not recommend it, but plenty of others have.

    Thanks for the comment!

  17. Ramsey says:

    What was that about the “Terrible Awful Thing”? A ‘Cold Sore’? You must have misread (or perhaps I misread your writing). *Spoiler* The “Terrible Awful” was Minnie baking her excrement into a chocolate pie and feeding it to Miss Hilly. That IS a “Terrible Awful Thing”, certainly. I will say, though, that it was underplayed in context. There was some ambiguity as to whether Minnie actually did make Hilly “eat shit”.

  18. Kerry says:

    Ramsey,

    You did misread my post, but that is my fault. I realize now that it was not clear that the new paragraph meant new idea. It does read as if I am revealing the “Terrible Awful”. I did not say what the “Terrible Awful Thing” was in order not to “spoil it”, such as it was.

    *Spoiler*

    I do not believe that having a blatant, hateful, evil person eat their own shit, and go back for seconds of her own accord, is awful. That is nothing about which Minnie should feel ashamed, nor even a little abashed. Granted, she would not want prospective employers to know about it, but I would be damn proud.

    I suspect most readers, particularly those who enjoyed the book, found it funny rather than “awful”.

    Of course, I am the outlier here. But, thank you, truly, for clarifying for my readers that the “Terrible Awful” was not the cold sore. In fact, I may correct that.

    Thank you very much for your comment.

  19. Ramsey says:

    It WAS funny. Part of the appeal of the book was the funny. That’s why so many people enjoy the lead up to that part, although I suspected it as soon as it was mentioned that the ‘terrible awful’ was baked in a pie. It just seemed such an appropriate revenge. My big criticism is that the dialect is so inconsistant, and like most readers, found it distracting that all the whities would speak without any slurs or drawls while the maids did.

  20. Kerry says:

    Ramsey,

    I can only say that I did not find the “Terrible Awful” funny. My reaction is probably due in large part to the fact you point out, namely, that the joke is quite obvious well before the “punchline” is delivered. Timing is everything in comedy. There is also the fact that I generally do not find scatological humor amusing.

    I, obviously, agree with your biggest criticism.

    Thank you for you comments!

  21. kimberlyloomis says:

    Okay, I loved this review and I have not read the book. Admittedly, this does not sound like something I could get into based upon the delivery of the subject matter. Truth be told the pauses and dialect would have me rolling my eyes and grinding my teeth. Thanks for the review!

  22. Kerry says:

    Kimberly,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. A literary angel gets its wings every time someone chooses not to read this one…

    • kimberlyloomis says:

      Kerry,

      Lol! Well, if that’s true then how could I even think of proceeding to crack this one open? ūüėČ

      • Kerry says:

        That’s what I was wondering. *grin*

        Thanks again for stopping by and you are more than welcome for the review!

  23. […] Kerry of Hungry Like the Woolf¬† posts about Katherine Stockett¬† coming to town which led me to Kerry’s very amusing review of The Help […]

  24. Jen says:

    I’m so glad I found this review. I read this for my book group, and have been struggling to find the words to explain my reservations. I was underwhelmed by the book, although my fellow members really loved it. They’re very bright women (several are English majors and read with a critical eye). I hate to be a killjoy, but I was so uncomfortable with the use of dialect. I feel like Stockett stole someone else’s story, and made a hash of it.

    I think she’s unintentionally condescending.

    I feel my criticisms are petty – for example, the fact that she couldn’t find another song other than Dylan’s shows that she does’t have much imagination or an affinity for the time period.

    I sort of feel grinchy for not liking this book. Your essay helps me pinpoint the source of my frustration with this book and find the words to better discuss it with the group.

    Thanks.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you so very much, Jen, for this heartening comment. While it would be mean of me to be happy others did not like the book, I am very pleased to find others with similar aesthetic tastes, let’s say. And, if my own dissatisfaction with the book helped others with a similar reaction feel less isolated, nothing could be more satisfying. So many of the reviews I read had only positive things to say and, yet, I found it so importantly flawed.

      I could not agree more with your “unintentionally condescending” observation.

      Your point about the Dylan song is an excellent one and one I had not noticed. Thank you for that illustrative shortcoming.

      You are very welcome for any aid and comfort I provided. Thank you for taking the time to commiserate and to provide some excellent substantive criticism of your own.

  25. Shannon Cavanaugh says:

    It took me two attempts to FORCE myself to read this book. I am a white woman about the age of Stockett and in graudate school for creative writing. I have major issues with this book. #1 That it takes a white woman to tell a black woman’s pov and to make the Top Ten list for 100 weeks. Where is the authenticity? This is a white writer’s version of “The Help.” I want to read the real version by a black voice. I want to read Black Boy by Richard Wright, not a white-washed version of a wealthy white chick.

    I made myself read it because so many folks love it and have put it on the top 10 list and I want to figure out why in the heck they love it. The lesson learned ….readers really don’t care if the story is authentic or well written. As a friend told me, “They just want to escape. You don’t have to have cancer to write about it.” No, but I sure as hello want to read the story of a real cancer survivor instead of some made up crap. I found “The Help” offensive to the real pov by black maids and found Ms. Stockett a racist.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you very much for your comment. As it happens, Richard Wright is near the top of my TBR and I also would highly recommend him over The Help. Like you, I was not convinced of the authenticity of all of the voices.

      I have no problem, in principal, with anyone writing from any point-of-view, but there are dangers when you step outside what you know. I did not feel like Stockett was able to inhabit the minds of “the help”, as she needed to do to create convincingly realistic characters.

      I do want to say that I have no reason to think Stockett is racist. I felt some of her choices were or could be considered offensive, however, I think she meant well and simply did not realize how her choices (such as the dialect issues) are likely to be interpreted. I understand your frustration at the sales of this very mediocre book, quality writing is definitely under-appreciated.

  26. Alice LaPlante says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful, balanced, and insightful review. I forced myself to read the book because it has garnered so much praise among my friends, family, and students (I teach writing at the college level). I tend not to read a lot of commercial fiction, so I frankly expected the writing to be cliched and facile, the language flat, and the characters wooden. It was all that, plus there was the dialect issue. But I was (am) appalled that the author’s sense of white privilege and entitlement has not been more thoroughly condemned. Mainstream reviewers in mainstream publications praised this book. Granted, the writer herself appears to be unconscious of the subtext of what she has written. I agree with you that the writer’s own emotional engagement with the material is the book’s saving grace. This is not a mean-spirited book. But in my opinion, the author has done more harm than good by writing it. Some may argue that she has raised awareness of issues that many readers (younger, white, northern, etc.) may otherwise not have thought about. Unfortunately, she has provided a still highly racist society with a feel-good get-out-of-jail-free card. They can read this, feel for “the help” and hate the nasty white women who don’t understand them, and cheer the fact that the times were on the verge of a’changing. All these problems were solved, weren’t they? After all, what matters is that these women connected on a personal level, right? As people. Without any imbalance of power, education, money, or social advantages coloring how they felt about each other. And, of course, there was the happy ending, with the white woman being rewarded for her bravery, stout-heartedness, generosity of spirit etc. in recognizing the humanity–think of it!–of these black women in a way that no one else did. Nothing to see here, move on. How I wish (as you and others here have said) that a more authentic voice had told this story.

    Please note that, as a writer myself, I am not condemning Stockett for trying to occupy the hearts and minds of characters who are not like herself. That’s what writers do, with varying degrees of success. The fact is, few writers can pull off inhabiting characters that are of say, the opposite sex, or of a different ethnicity or race. It’s frigging hard to do so with–that word again–authenticity. I don;t fault Stockett for trying. If anything, I was embarrassed on her behalf as I forced myself to finish the book. History will not be kind to her. But I guess she can laugh all the way to the bank.

    Keep on fighting the good fight.

    • Kerry says:

      Sorry for the delayed response. Thank you for your support.

      I agree that an opportunity was missed to tell an intellectually and morally engaging tale, rather than a feel-good page-turner.

  27. And, from all that I think you don’t respect me any more! Oh well, easy come, easy goes!

    • Kerry says:

      Oh no, definitely don’t think that. I am not sure what made you think you lost my respect, but certainly going to watch one of the most popular movies based on an outlandishly popular book couldn’t do it.

      I am thrilled with your “not awful, not great” synopsis. I actually expect the movie will be less offensive than the book because there are actors who, presumably, all speak in an appropriate time/place dialect (which, as you know, was one of my main gripes). In other words, if you take out the bad writing and distasteful dialect issues, you are left with a fast-paced story which merely skims the shimmering surface of a much darker and deeper reality. That’s what Hollywood does best, right?

      The Help seems to be winning though, when I check my stats that is the book that brings more people than any other. Egads. That feels to me like salt in the wound every time I check stats.

      I think I type too much when The Help comes up…..

      • Oh Kerry, I was teasing you about the respect business … and yes, it does seem to be what Hollywood does best.

        I guess if we want lots of hits on our blogs we should be writing about Dan Brown and John Grisham (or whoever the current top sellers are, eh?). My top post by far is a post I wrote on the Coco Chanel film. It has almost no comments but is winning by a country yard and then some. Interestingly, the next top post is one on a Kate Chopin short story. (I’m guessing school text??)

  28. I think I reserve much of my negativity of this book to the white 1% system that gives money and attention to this particular kind of writer, to this particular kind of book.

    Almost every negative review I have read of The Help, hardly anyone mentions the super rich power of the media / publishing world to decide what gets made or what gets ignored. I think just jumping all over this one woman writer is missing the bigger picture. Who gave her the advance, who spent all the money on book advertising, who got the movie deal, who spent all that advertising money on the movie? FOLLOW THE MONEY HONEY

    Also, I did read in some positive reviews how this book and movie is a celebration of female driven stories so as a feminist, I do have to appreciate it on that level. There were scenes of women talking about things OTHER than a man. How did that slip through the white 1% censors? ha aha ha it did

    Overall the book was very easy to speed read through, so I think that is a good example of an entertaining read. Yes, it helped me to escape. It has also brought me to many websites where I have bookmarked more appropriate books on race. So it’s not all bad.

    ‚ô•

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you for your considered comment. I definitely agree that the publishing industry bears some of the blame for the outsized (relative to merit) success of this book. But, they generally follow the money and the money comes from readers who, it seems, tend to like this sort of quick read that makes them feel like they are engaging a serious issue when, in fact, they are not.

      I agree that one of the best things to come out of discussions about this book are recommendations to read actually serious books that deal, either directly or obliquely, with race in America.

      Thanks for the comment and reminding me that The Help was not all bad…..

  29. Holly says:

    This review seemed kind of retarded to me. First of all, what’s the big deal with Mae Mobley not being able to say “throat”? My kids say stuff like that all the time. Second, what’s the big deal with the way the white the white people talk? My husbands grandparents from the Deep South do have perfect grammar. They are uppity and educated. They have a “draw” but their grammar is good. Where are you from? I have been away from the South for 12 years an people still can’t understand when I ask for something perfectly normally (ice being the most common). If the movie directors made this exactly like the south in 1960 most of America wouldn’t even understand the words.

    • Kerry says:

      Setting aside how retarded I am, there is no big deal with Mae Mobley “not being able to say ‘throat’.” The big deal is that Mae Mobley’s English is sufficiently poor that she cannot say throat, she spends most of her time with Aibileen, and yet she speaks the perfect grammar of the grown-up white characters. None of this is to say there is not a difference in the dialect of wealthy white Southerners and their “help” in the 1960s South. However, I think Stockett does an incredibly poor job of capturing the language of either.

      I will trust you on the “perfect grammar” of your relatives, but I grew up in the South and Southerners (like Bostonians, Midwesterners, and others) do not have perfect grammar, as a rule. (Side note: It is “drawl”, not “draw”; I recognize it was possibly a typo.)

      As for your comments on the movie adaptation, I haven’t seen it. I suspect the dialect issue is actually better in the movie as it does not spring from the imagination of Stockett whose handling of race is ham-fisted at best, but from screenwriter and the exceptionally talented cast. I would be willing to bet, not having seen the movie, that Viola Davis’s Aibileen is worlds better than Stockett’s Aibileen.

      Thank you for your comment and contributing to the conversation!

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