For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Help

Posted on: August 20, 2010

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, Amy Einhorn Books, 2009, 451 pp.

I first heard about this book via a review at RevGalBlogPals, and immediately added it to my list of things to read. While I can say that I enjoyed the experience of reading it, I’m still not sure what I think or feel about the book itself.

The Help tells the story of white women and the black women who work for them as domestic help in Jackson, MS in the early 1960s. It is also a book about writing a book. The story unfolds as one white woman has an idea to write the untold stories of black maids and their relationships with their employers. She recruits one lifelong domestic worker to help her, and together they engage in the dangerous work of collecting stories. In the shadow of Medgar Evers and tensions around civil rights, the group knows that they are certainly putting their jobs and income in peril, and perhaps their lives and the lives of their families. The stories themselves are sometimes horrifying, sometimes tender, sometimes disgusting, sometimes compassionate, which parallels the relationships between the white women and the black women in these master-servant relationships. There is an intimacy that comes with spending so much time together, handling the tasks of house, raising someone’s children. Sometimes that intimacy leads to compassion, sometimes to hostility.

As I said before, I enjoyed the novel for its compelling story and characters. I would recommend it for your summer reading.

However, large parts of the narrative are written in the first person perspective of two of the African-American women, and those sections are written in dialect. I had a vague sense of unease as I was reading, knowing that Stockett was a white woman writing in dialect. The characters themselves are strong and fully formed, but I wondered about her boldness in choosing to write in first person. While the first person narrative did resemble the style of the book-within-a-book that the novel’s characters were writing, I think it was a risky choice for Stockett to make. Even unintentionally, a white author claiming to speak with the voice of an African-American woman, and even to speak her thoughts, seems like a situation ripe for projection, as white women have been projecting thoughts and feelings onto black women for centuries. Then again, I’m not sure that the novel would have been nearly as compelling without that first-person narrative from these two domestic servants.

I found myself reading cautiously throughout, wondering if Stockett had really given voice to this experience, or if it was just another white person thinking they know what it’s like to be black. Then again, maybe she conducted interviews similar to the white character in the novel. Then again, how will we ever work to overcome racism without this kind of exploration and imagination?

I enjoyed the story, yet the unease remained. Perhaps that is a good thing–to remain slightly uncomfortable, because it means that the story carries us into unfamiliar territory, outside the comfortable race roles and expectations. Or maybe I’m uncomfortable because it doesn’t. I still can’t decide.

I encourage you to read The Help for yourself and find out. I’ll be curious to hear from those of you have read it—what do you think?

2 Responses to "Book Review: The Help"

Hello Friend Thanks for the Review

I’m thinking of buying this book for my mum as a Christmas presant? Is it a really good book? Or is it quite average. I was hooked by the concept of the novel because it sounds really interesting……

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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