Our View From Here

Perspectives of Five Women

Judging a book

on June 22, 2011

Never judge a book by its cover.  It’s a cliché, to be sure, but in this case it’s very appropriate.  The cover of The Help doesn’t want you to buy the book.  The cover makes it look like the most dreadful kind of chick-lit and deceptively conjures images of the Middle East.  What are the birds about?  Why yellow and purple? The title doesn’t do it any favors, either.  We discussed reading The Help for my actual book club for months.  Every time, I’d look it up on Amazon, see the cover and have a visceral reaction to it, “I do not want to read that.”  Then, I’d read the plot summary and think, “well….maybe.”  When we finally did choose to read TH for book club, I brought this issue to the attention of the other members.  Someone, holding up the book and gesturing to the cover summed it up perfectly, “I don’t want to read this book.” Then, turning it over and pointing out the summary, “but I do want to read this one.”  This was the essential hurdle for me. 

That said, when I actually sat down with the book, and got into it, I found it a delightful, if problematic, read. 

The author is a white woman who grew up in Mississippi and was raised with the help of a black maid.  The book is written as a series of first person narratives from the perspectives of three characters, two black maids and one young white woman. The voice and writing style shift between characters.  I found myself growing slightly uneasy during the first few chapters. 

The two black maids’ chapters are written in thick, accented english, portraying at the very least a sub-standard education.  As I became aware of this bias in writing it came to feel, at first, like a very strange choice of voice for a writer.  But then, I realized that the characters’ voices told me things about them that they never overtly said.  I was still wary of the choice, however, until I read the author’s epilogue, where she wrote about her inspiration for the book and the deeply conflicted feelings she herself has about her home state and its history.  Her personal story put me at ease with the characters, the writing and the setting of the book, in a way that even the story’s conclusion and the growth of the characters could not.   

The Help was entertaining , sprinkled, if not fully directed by the historical events of Jackson, MS in the early 1960’s.  Character growth for the protagonists is monumental, for the other characters, especially the primary antagonist, it’s thin on the ground, which was a little bit disappointing.  Some people are resistant to change.  But the force with which the main “bad guy” of the book, Hilly, pulls didn’t quite ring true to me.  She was, after all, a young woman, barely into her twenties.  She had some years of college and was raised in a big city.  Surely, some understanding of the changing nature of the world must have penetrated her psyche?  But Hilly actually pushes the other characters to devolve socially, to move backwards toward more separatism and more inequality, and without a moment’s reflection, at least as far as we know.  Political motivations and social pressures and expectations are her primary driving forces, and though she acts as a ring leader, she shows almost no capacity for independent thought.  What I’m trying to say is that even though she’s a good mother and has the capacity to be a good friend, Hilly’s character was a little too one-dimensional and single-minded to be fully believable.

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