(E)Book Talk: “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett

Disclosures: I purchased this to read as an e-book on my Amazon Kindle. *The purchasing link at the end of this review goes through my Amazon Associates account.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Help
Kathryn Stockett
ISBN 0399155341 / 9780399155345
Fiction (historical/literary), 2009
Kindle e-book edition

Opening Lines: “Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August 1960. A church baby we like to call it. 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.”

Book description: Twenty-two-year-old Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
Comments: In September, The Help was voted “Best Book Published So Far in 2009” by participants in Book Blogger Appreciation Week. It was one of those books that it seemed like everyone was either reading or wanted to read, and it was hard to find anyone who had a negative reaction to it. Books like that make me very nervous. I’m afraid that I’ll be the lone voice of dissent about them…or worse, that I’ll just think I like them because I’m supposed to.

As it turns out, I’ve made up my own mind about this novel…and I’ll have good things to say about it too. It’s rare for me to finish a book and immediately want to start reading it again, but I had that reaction to The Help. Kathryn Stockett’s first novel is thoroughly involving and engaging. It drew me in immediately and kept me reading compulsively; I was trying to read a couple of other books while reading this one on my Kindle, but they had to take a back seat.

I’m both drawn to and cautious about novels set in the South; drawn to them because I lived there for half of my life and still love many things about the region (flaws and all), but cautious because a lot of Southern stories seem to be almost deliberately, self-consciously “quirky,” and that just annoys me. The Help takes place in that flawed but real South, not the exaggeratedly eccentric one. Its characters are well-drawn and developed, and its situations are pulled from real life in a challenging time – Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, as the civil-rights movement was beginning to build. While slavery had ended nearly a hundred years earlier, the world was still black and white, and people’s places in that world were pretty well fixed, while their relationships were more complex than they might appear to be. Yet change was simmering, and it scared people – even people for whom it might mean better things.

The basic plot of The Help might seem a bit unlikely, to be honest. Recent college graduate Skeeter Phelan has no marriage prospects and is actually interested in a career as a writer, but her prospects for that aren’t good either. Her only opportunity is a weekly housekeeping column in the local paper…but as a white, upper-middle-class Southern girl, Skeeter has no experience with domestic chores. Like everyone she knows, her family has always had “help” – a black woman who was charged with cleaning, cooking, and child-rearing. Skeeter would ask her family’s maid to help her with the column, but the maid she grew up with has mysteriously disappeared, and she hasn’t gotten to know the new maid well. Instead, she obtains permission from her friend Elizabeth to go to Elizabeth’s maid, Aibileen, with her questions for the column. Her conversations with Aibileen begin to open Skeeter’s eyes to more than just housekeeping, and they’re eye-opening for Aibileen too. Never forgetting the risks to their lives and livelihood, Aibileen and her friends begin secretly collaborating with Skeeter on a book to tell their stories.

The Help is an excellent example of a character-driven novel, and Stockett has created some vivid and indelible characters, particularly the three narrators, Aibileen, her best friend Minny, and Skeeter. I grew to love them all, but I think Minny was my favorite. Stockett made an interesting, rather controversial narrative choice in using dialect for the first-person narration by Aibileen and Minny; she also made a smart choice in writing Minny’s dialect a bit differently. I didn’t really find it necessary, having enough familiarity with both black and white Southern voices that I probably would have “heard” each character’s voice as intended without the dialect, but not every reader will bring that experience to the book, so I think using it was effective.

I grew to love this book more as I progressed with it, I didn’t want it to end, and I definitely want to read it again, although I’m not going to forget it any time soon. I’ll look forward to Kathryn Stockett’s next novel, but even if there isn’t one, she’s made a big mark on the literary world with The Help. It’s a thought-provoking, well-told story with characters I cared about, and it’s a novel that’s going to stick.

This completes my 20-book pledge for the Read Your Own Books (RYOB) Challenge 2009. (Since it was an e-book, I won’t count it for the Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge.)

Rating: 4.25/5
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  1. So glad you loved this one … I have not seen anything but good reviews and I loved this one as well. It definitely deserved the "win" for best book of 2009 during BBAW.

  2. And I see it made it into your top 10 list for the year. Yay! It's definitely one of my favorites, too. And I agree, too much of Southern fiction seems to be unnecessarily quirky.

  3. Wendy – I almost feel like I want to find someone who didn't like this book. It's partly just contrary-mindedness, but I'd also really want to know WHY NOT.

    Heather – It's like The Hunger Games of adult fiction: The Book Everyone Loves :-). Yes, you really do have to read it!

    Jill (Softdrink) – That was my Top 10 just for books published this year, but I'm pretty sure it'll be one of my broader "Books of the Year" picks too :-).

    I'm ambivalent about a lot of Southern literature because of the eccentricity factor – not that some of it isn't deserved :-), but sometimes it just goes too far. I'm really glad that The Help didn't suffer from it!

  4. Amy RGB – It was the "New South" by the time I got there, but I did live in Memphis for ten years, which is basically Upper Northwest Mississippi. A lot has changed, but some things haven't changed quite enough.

    Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I'll be really interested in your take on the book!

  5. I am glad to hear you enjoyed this one, Florinda. As always, you've written an incredibly insightful review. I hope to read this one day. And now I'm thinking it might make a good Christmas present for my mother-in-law . . . I had originally wanted to get her The 19th Wife, but for reasons I'd rather not go into publicly, I think it would be wiser not to.

  6. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I really liked The 19th Wife – it's going to be one of my Books of the Year too – but I think The Help might be a better gift. And yes, you definitely should read it :-).