Book Report: "The Help"

About a year ago, a bunch of my friends started talking about a book they had just read.  The book was called The Help.  They told me it was funny, and touching, and a real page-turner.  Then they put a button on the conversation: “You would love it,” they said – with the emphasis on the “you” and not the “love.”
The Help is a book about many things, but mostly it’s a book about race.  It’s the story of black domestic workers in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s, and an ambitious young (white) writer who wants to write a book about them.  It sounded interesting, and the recommendations came from friends whose opinions I trusted.
And yet … I was scared of The Help.  Because just as soon as I started hearing the accolades from my friends, I started reading about the controversies surrounding the book in the press.  If there was a lot to potentially enjoy about this book, there was also plenty to be scared of.
Most of the controversy has to do with the fact that the book is written by a white woman.  Now, there’s no rule – written or unwritten – that says that white people can’t write about race; hell, I’m doing it right now.  The stickiness of this particular situation comes from the fact that Kathryn Stockett, a white author, writes in the first person for over 90% of the book, using three narrators – two of whom are black women.  It’s one thing, Stockett’s critics would say, to write about black women – but quite another to assume that you "get" a black woman’s identity so much as to write from her perspective.  And compounding this was Stockett’s choice to write these chapters in a form of dialect – “Law have mercy” or “I sho nuff gone do it,” and the like.
I decided it was probably best for me to avoid The Help altogether.  I didn’t have strong opinions about the book; after all I hadn’t read it.  When friends would continue to ask, “Have you read The Help?” – I would say no, and when they pressed me, I would tell them why.  When they would counter with arguments of their own, I wouldn’t argue back – again, we were talking about a book they had read but I had not.  And still, I was not moved to pick up the book and read it.
Then … I saw the preview for the upcoming film.
It’s no secret that while I’m a fairly avid reader, I’m a huge movie buff.  The trailer looked funny and touching, and everything my friends told me the book was.  While the book was something I could ignore or put off, I knew I was going to see this movie at some point.  And this presented a problem for me.  If I saw the film version of The Help, I was going to have opinions about The Help, and if I was going to have opinions about The Help, I needed to know exactly what my opinions were based on.  I was going to have to read this book.
And so, I read the book.
I can confidently say that reading The Help nearly destroyed my relationship.  During the three days (yes, only three days) it took me to devour Stockett’s novel, I barely looked up from my Kindle.  Dishes went unwashed, laundry went unlaundered, and all conversation in the house ceased.  “Sssh,” I’d say. “I’m reading.”
The book was everything my friends told me it would be and nothing like I’d hoped it wasn’t.  Well … almost nothing.  While I loved the plot twists, characterizations, wry observations, and overall humanity of the story, I will confess right away that “Law have mercy” never stopped being annoying.  Every time I read Stockett’s dainty Ebonics, I wondered – what would have been missed if she had instead written “Lord have mercy,” or “sure enough” instead of “sho nuff”?  I’m fairly sure that I would have been able to detect three distinct voices even so.  I don’t have much else to say on this topic, other than I really wish that Stockett had made a different choice.
And, as annoyed as I was, I wasn’t so annoyed that I didn’t devour the book over the course of three evenings, much to Shorebird’s dismay.  Honestly, I don’t know how well Stockett captured the interior landscape of a black domestic in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s, but I cannot deny that the characters leapt off the page. They reacted to their situations in complex ways that nonetheless made psychological sense.
I think what I was really afraid of was that The Help would join other works of literary or cinematic art, such as Dangerous Minds or The Blind Side, in a category of books, films, and stories that I call the Tale of the Nice White Lady.  The Tale of the Nice White Lady centers on a white woman who was born without the ability to form biases against people who are different from herself.  Unlike you or I (or the inevitable awful, horrible, evil white people who surround her), she knows in her soul that all human beings are equally human, but that some people require saving, and that she’s just the Nice White Lady to do it.  Nice White Ladies in books or movies make white people who read those books and watch those movies feel a whole lot better about themselves, mostly because they’re encouraged to identify with those Nice White Ladies, rather than examining their own privileges and prejudices.  White people who enjoy the Tale of the Nice White Lady leave the theatre (or put down the book) feeling good about themselves, but not necessarily motivated to do anything to make a difference in the world.  Nice White Ladies piss me off.
Skeeter, one of the narrators of The Help, is indeed a nice, white girl.  But unlike the Nice White Ladies described above, she’s not immune to having some blind spots around race and her own privileged position in society.  Stockett doesn’t do much to hide the fact that – at her core – Skeeter is an ambitious young writer – much more interested in publishing her first book than empowering a group of black domestics.  When she asks the maids she knows to tell her their stories so that she can compile them into a controversial book that she hopes will launch her career, she is initially surprised when they refuse.  They live in a world that she doesn’t understand and can't relate to.  When the maids finally agree to tell their stories, they don’t do it because Skeeter has persuaded them; rather, it is presented as an act of personal courage.  Yes, it helps the privileged white girl write her book – but they’re more concerned with, at long last, telling the truth.  And yes, Skeeter risks a little – her standing among her white neighbors in the Junior League – but this is nothing compared to what the black women of the novel are willing to risk.  Stockett knows this, and so do her readers.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t things about Skeeter to admire.  She is the only white woman in the entire story who seems to have ambitions beyond marrying a nice white (rich) boy.  Initially, she feels very sorry for herself, mostly because she’s a woman in a man’s world.  As the story progresses, she learns that she has privileges she had never considered, and that while her oppression based on gender doesn’t make up for her privilege based on skin color, neither does her privilege make up for her oppression.  The two simply co-exist, neither one being cancelled out by the other.  Of course, the black women she aligns herself with have privilege with regard to neither race nor gender – something the reader is free (if not deliberately encouraged) to ponder while reading.
The film version of The Help was released earlier this month.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m considering going tonight.  Shorebird is even planning to join me, which is awfully big of him, considering our rocky history with this particular story.
Of course, with the film opening up, many of the controversies that were reported on when the book was initially published are being revisited.  There’s a lot of anger I’m reading about, much of it focused on the Tale of the Nice White Lady, and whether or not this story fits that model.  A lot of other folks are upset by what’s not in this story – both the book and the movie (based on what I’ve read) focus almost exclusively on a cast of female characters, which doesn’t leave room to focus on the constant threat of rape and other forms of sexual assault visited on black domestic workers from the men who employed them.  Others take exception to the notion that the central character of the film (Aibeleen, played the by the extraordinary Viola Davis) feels actual love – real, maternal, all-consuming love – for the white child left in her care. These critics note that this is a white woman’s fantasy – a white woman who wants to believe that her black caregiver loved her heart and soul, with no trace of resentment or frustration.  There’s also a sense of exasperation focused on the lack of black authors and filmmakers who get the kind of exposure that The Help has received.  In truth, there is no lack of black storytellers who wish to tell their stories, but rarely do their efforts top the New York Times Bestseller Lists or get made into Hollywood films with Hollywood budgets.
I can’t really argue with any of these points.  The story Stockett tells is likely flawed, but I truly believe that there’s a lot of artistry at work there as well.  All of these arguments together seem to wonder, “does this story tell the truth?” – which to me, is a flawed question.  There is no single truth. I think the book tells the truth as Kathryn Stockett sees it, and there are other stories, other truths we probably need to hear as well.  That most of us will never hear those stories is a fault that belongs to all of us, and shouldn’t be placed solely at the feet of Kathryn Stockett.
I won’t lie– I’m really excited to see this movie tonight, and also a little nervous.  What if it’s offensive?  What’s worse, what if it should be offensive but I’m too coddled by the film’s insidious message and my own white privilege to realize it?  Am I asking enough from society? Am I asking too much from myself? Can both be true at the same time?


  1. I'm really looking forward to hearing what you thought of the movie - I gave a very short review here: https://plus.google.com/112359535412446665246/posts/MJr48QANTqV

  2. I liked the movie. Didn't love it as I did the book. Viola Davis was as wonderful as I thought she'd be. But while I always love Allison Janney, I hated how they turned Skeeter's mom into some kind of proto-activist at the end. In the book, the mother's love for her daughter is still in display at the end of the book, but much more convincingly. Lots of other little quibbles too, but that will happen whenever you read a book so soon before seeing the film adaptation of it.