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Vacation Reading: The Help

The Help is undoubtedly the most talked about book of the summer. It sounded like something I’d like, as historical fiction is my favorite genre; although in my old age, I’m becoming increasingly more interested in true stories. Which is perhaps why I was not quite as enthralled with the book as I thought I’d be. After reading so much non-fiction lately, I can’t entirely lose myself in a book that I know is purely fiction. But The Help is engrossing, and I hardly put it down in the two days it took to read it.

The story is told by three different narrators, and it chronicles the lives of a group of women in Jackson, Mississippi during the civil rights movement. Two of the narrators are black maids, and the other narrator is a privileged white woman fresh out of college who becomes aware of the plight of the black community and of her friends’ racist attitudes and contradictions. For instance, their maids were trusted to raise and nurture their children but not to use the same bathrooms. As the book progresses, she endeavors to share the stories of the maids and finds herself on the outs with her socialite friends.

SPOILER ALERT:

The story is compelling but the character development is what kept me reading. I have to admit, I felt skeptical about the whole plot with Skeeter writing the maids’ stories. It seemed a bit far-fetched, and that bothered me as I read. And at the end, I wanted to cry when Aibileen was forced to leave Mae Mobley, but I couldn’t quite lose myself in the story even though I know that similar situations occurred throughout the South during those times.

Again, I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if it had really happened. I can lose myself more easily in a silly novel by Janet Evanovich that has no illusions of being a true story than I can in a book like this that is raw and real but uses fictional characters. But perhaps that’s just my own hang-up.

That said, the story made me wonder what I would have been like, had I been raised in that society. I’d like to believe that I’d feel as Skeeter did, sympathetic to the plight of the maids who gave so much to the families they worked for and too often received in return only distrust and contempt.

I’d like to believe that I’d at least have been one of the kind ones — a Lou Anne, perhaps, or hopefully even someone who had the chutzpah stood up to the Elizabeths and the Hillys of the day.

Or would I have been an Elizabeth, content to sit by and observe the cruelties of my social set while my hired help grew more emotionally attached to my children than I?

Surely I wouldn’t have been a Hilly.  **shudder**

Or. Maybe I am capable of that kind of bigotry. Maybe we all are.

It’s disconcerting to contemplate because I THINK I know how I’d feel and how I’d act, but I suppose it’s entirely possible to become so ingrained in one’s culture and so influenced by the attitudes of those around us that we are impervious to our own prejudices.

I believe this is why The Help is so compelling. Not only is it a good story, but it makes you think.

I know many of you have read it. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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37 thoughts on “Vacation Reading: The Help

  1. I haven’t read it but I do think that you might be right that we are all capable of becoming so ingrained in our culture to be ‘blind’ to prejudice because if it’s a ‘normal’ part of growing up we would know no different and therefore wouldn’t think of it as prejudice.
    For example: children of current members of the KKK or some similar groups probably do not know any different and therefore grow up prejudice but convinced the rest of society has it backwards.
    I can get lost in pretty much any quality fiction novel but I do love the ones that make you think & question yourself at the end- as it sounds this one does!

  2. I have this book on hold at the library so I didn’t read the spoiler alert…thanks for that. I’ll let you know what I think after I read it!

  3. Wow I must really be out of the loop, cuz I’d never heard of it! But then historical fiction is not my thing. Chick lit is my thing, when I’m reading fiction. Most of the time though it’s non-fiction stuff.

  4. Where’d you get those khaki shorts, Jo-Lynne? I’ve searched high and low for some non-bermuda (aka not tapered) types that hit right at my knee since I can wear shorts of that length to work. I’ve looked EVERYWHERE.

  5. Whoops, meant for that comment to show up in your previous post…the one with photos from Maine. Have read “The Help,” too. It was the best read I’d discovered in a long while. A book I absolutely ate up was “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls.

  6. I really loved this book- I too was compelled by the characters- I have always been facinated by the idea of being raised in the south during a time of such social diversity/segregation. I wonder myself how I would have been…if I am honest I am not sure. Seeing what the “norm” was -who knows. I loved the fact that someone does step out (Skeeter in her own way) to help the help. Following the story; she was taking a huge chance doing that -but not one greater than the chance the maids were also taking. This shows how people of all ages, races and social status can and do work for the sames things
    I truly enjoyed a lot about this book (I am all over the page writing this being I read it about 3 months ago I am going blank on some parts):)

  7. I loved this book. The book aside, I always wonder how I would act in situations that probably would never happen to me. I think that you can NEVER presume that you will act a certain way. I surprise myself every day! But I do hope that I will always act in a way that would have others feeling that I am a kind person.

  8. I loved this book. I live in the “Deep South” and oh man….this stuff STILL goes on but on a different level. I know people in my hometown who still use the “N” word and hire different ethnic groups to watch their children and mow their lawn but then would GROUND their own teenagers if they were seen with that same race in their car or out on the town. I have a friend whose mom grew up in the town where this book took place and word on the streets is that LOTS of women in that generation are claiming an eery resemblance to actual stories and people who lived in the town at the time. I was able to enjoy it for the sheer honesty and true portrayal of the hypocrisy of the times.

    Ironically, some of my “deep East Texas” family and friends who I described above read the book and thought it was great, yet failed to see the thorn in their own eyes.

    1. WOW!

      And WOW!

      Being from the north, I guess I’m just shocked this stuff really happens. I’m not sure what we would do given the same circumstances. So weird to even think about it.

  9. I thought this was a good read and am embarrassed to admit I didn’t really stop to think about how I’d have been in that time/place. This was a book club book for me and it was one of the best discussions we’ve had in awhile. Most of us are from the south, so there were a lot of similar stories told.

  10. I didn’t read after the spoiler alert because I have this sitting on the end table at home just waiting to be read. If I remember I’ll come back and let you know what I thought after I’m done.

  11. I loved this book! I was lucky enough to meet the author at an event & have her sign my copy. Within the first two pages I knew I wasn’t going to be able to put it down. The characters were so real to me. It definitely made me think about how I would’ve been had I been of that era. My mother-in-law borrowed my copy and we had an interesting discussion after she read it. She grew up in South Carolina in the ’60s, and apparently they had a live in black maid. Just like the book. It was fascinating to hear about.

  12. I’m pretty much the exact opposite of you LOL I love reading historical fiction so much more than non-fiction. I think it flows much better and I like to hear the stories, behind the story, even if it’s just what “might” have happened. It makes me think more about the people. Anyways, I loved this book! I thought it was written very well, and few fiction books are written so well these days. I was really impressed.

  13. I read this book several months ago and it definitely got me hooked where I wanted to know what would happen next. I was born and raised in the south but not during this time, and as one commenter said it – sadly some attitudes still persist. I agree with you that it made me wonder how I would have reacted to similar situations, all the while hoping that I would have made a godly choice rather than to follow society’s social rules. I loved how she wrote Abileen’s dialect. I also loved how she referred to cooking and some of the ways things were done, especially since I’m all about Real Food!!

    Another book I read several years ago was called The Swan House, setting in the 1960s in Atlanta, where I’m from, and although fiction, it had a lot of references to the city that are accurate. Good read, as well.

  14. I honestly probably would not have picked up this book had I seen it in the store- however, my mother sent it to me and I was out of reading material, so I started reading. I was amazed at how fast I got hooked!

  15. I just finished this book a few days ago and really liked it. You have to take it for what it is… fiction. Even the author admitted that she took liberties with historical events to make the book better, but had been raised with help when she was younger. I wanted to cry when Aibileen had to leave those children to their mother. I wanted to reach through the book and shake the crap out of that Elizabeth. And every time (oh, what is that character’s name?…) picked up the phone and was cold shouldered was heartbreaking. Who hasn’t been stonewalled at one time or another? I hope that with all of the loose ends the author left that we readers could end up with new books that follow the characters new adventures.

  16. I loved the book. I devour fiction anyway, but we all know this is grounded in reality, even if she used fictional characters to tell the story. It definitely made me think. I’d like to think I’m above that kind of prejudice, but I know I still make groundless judgments about people. Definitely a thought-provoking book though.

  17. Oh my gosh. I was sucked into this book from the first word. The one thing that stood out to me was why I am so tired at the end of the day – I work, have no help, have always worked from home so I could have my child here, clean the house, prepare the meals, etc. etc. etc. (my husband does his fair share, no complaints, just a realization). I had no idea women (in just the 60s!!!) had such help in their homes. I have to admit I am kind of jealous – not at the EXPENSE of other women, just in general. It would be nice to not always have to be the one taking care of everything.

    I’m not sure I could see myself being any one of the white women. I’m from the northern states and life is different.

    I loved Miss Celia’s (I think that was her name) character. I always love an under dog.

  18. I love loved this book – but not for the reasons I’d usually like a book. This book made me really think about what person I’d be – the kind who stood up for something and went against the grain or the one who conformed because it was the thing to do.

    I read this book in 2 days – I was totally enthralled!

  19. I also really enjoyed it. Such an interesting look at that period of time. Did you read the author’s notes at the end, of her own experiences growing up with hired help? I think that gave the “fictional” part more weight somehow… Anyway.

    Elizabeth and her (non)relationship with her children made me want to weep. So sad.

    1. Yes, I did read the author’s notes at the end. I kinda wish I’d read them first, though. And I do know that most of it is very realistic and is based on fact. It was only the one part that I wondered about – and I don’t even doubt that it was possible, I just don’t know b/c I am not familiar with that culture at all. It just seemed awfully dangerous and also unlikely that the black maids would put themselves at so much risk.

  20. Hm. Haven’t read the book, b/c (like you) as I age I’m more drawn to real life. I’d trust your gut here, J-L — remember that it is FICTION. I’m not saying there wasn’t (and isn’t) brutal racism out there — we all know there is. B/f reading your post, I knew nothing of this book. However, I moved to Jackson, MS in 1973. I grew up in the affluent, privileged world of North Jackson whites, although I was never quite “one of them,” b/c my dad worked in ministry, we weren’t wealthy, and we lived on the wrong side of town. Still, I learned much of that world over 25 years. I did not see cruelty or distrust or abuse or condescension in the attitude of the white women I knew who did have black maids. Very few had maids. Friends of mine (girls then) who did have maids in the home, loved them. One dear friend of mine — wealthy, funny, dear, a working mom — had an interesting maid named Sadie. She worked for them for years and years. They gave her gifts, gifts for her children, heard all about her husband, family and her cousins and her whole life away from their home. They loved her. She fell ill as she aged. They were talking one day with the one family member of Sadie’s that they ever actually met, face to face. They found out that Sadie had concocted the WHOLE thing (remember, they’d known her and loved her for many years — she was in their home all day, every day, welcomed their kids home from school, etc.) I don’t know that they ever found out why she made up her life story; it wasn’t malicious at all. They’d trusted her with all the details of their home; she’d trusted them with nothing. It was just a shock for them to realize that all they thought they’d known about her was … fiction.

    But my friend’s experience was real. (I wrote a short story about it in grad school.) It’s a whole lot better than fiction.

    The fiction that you’re reading is what the guilty white person in the 21st century, having heard about the events of the 60s/70s South (but perhaps not living in it) finds compelling. It grips the soul. But we should listen to the truth of those times, which is more instructive in changing our souls than any fiction might be. Just my opinion, mind you.

  21. Having grown up in Louisiana during the early post-civil rights movement era, I think this story closely highlighted the plight and division that took place. I think it was just one person’s story of how she (Skeeter) tried to help, but being the child of a civil rights lawyer, I had the unique perspective of watching several episodes of the same situation occur WHILE living on the “right” side of the tracks. In fact, my grandmother had a maid, and she was always very racist and condescending. Talk about a conflicting upbringing!

  22. It was one of my favorite books of 2009! I absolutely loved the story and I am crossing my fingers for a sequel to it 🙂

  23. I read this book a few months ago, and couldn’t put it down. However, I questioned Skeeter’s initial motives for writing the book. I couldn’t help but question whether she really wanted to help the black maids or whether she was more interested in advancing her writing career, so she picked a subject that she knew would be controversial. I think she realized what she was doing in the middle of the project, and then felt guilty and agreed to help the maids out.

    1. I read it on the Kindle and it felt like it was taking me forever. No wonder. That’s the ONLY thing I don’t like about the kindle – it doesn’t tell me an actual page #. Altho it might and I’m just not smart enough to figure it out.

    2. oh! heh you meant your book list is a mile long, not The Help itself. Never mind! {now where’s that edit button!}

  24. This is on my to-read list for this summer. I also really enjoy true stories. On our recent road trip I listened to Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve which was a good book.

  25. Thanks for the book review Jo-Lynne. I appreciate it! (As you know), I just watched the movie…and wasn’t impressed. I think that I’ll stick to the non-fiction accounts of that era…

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