Our View From Here

Perspectives of Five Women

Required Reading for Book Clubs

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Image by thomas ford memorial library via Flickr

A little over a year ago, just before the end of another school year, a friend of mine posted on her Facebook page that she was looking for a book club to join, or at least, people willing to start one. Thus began the group that I’ve been reading fantastic works with for the last year. We’re made up primarily of teachers with a few other professions thrown in and we get a long pretty well.

When it came time to choose a first book, we all threw out a suggestion or two. Malissa, our fearless leader, was discussing the book club at lunch. One of the guys in the group sarcastically responded, “What, are you going to read The Help?” It had only been out for a couple of months at that point and was quickly getting the reputation of being the go-to book for book clubs. I, like Nicki, was a little put off by the cover – too girly, what did it have to do with anything, but I bought the book (pre-Kindle, so I actually broke down and bought the hardcover) and began reading.

As the other ladies on this blog have discussed, the story is from the point of view of two black women (“the help”) and one upper class white woman. The switching of narrative was a little confusing at first but soon became enthralled by the different personalities and takes on the story line that each woman had.  Aibileen was the strong woman who kept calm and collected, worrying more about the children than her self. Minny, the hot-tempered one, brought a bit of humor to the book, but also a deeper side to a black woman’s life in the South. I loved reading her parts the most. And Skeeter showed how a white woman who believed in civil rights was an outsider in this society.

Having not lived through the Civil Rights Movement nor having ever lived in the South, a lot of this was eye opening to me. It bothered me how white parents could let their children be raised by these black women, but wouldn’t even let them use their bathrooms. It also showed how having ideas different the norms of that society could put you on the outside very quickly.

The movie of The Help is coming out this August. It’s got a pretty good cast – Emma Stone as Skeeter, Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, Viola Davis as Aibileen, and Octavia Spencer as Minny. Even one of my favorites, Allison Janney, is in it as Skeeter’s mother. The trailer, which I have included below, looks pretty good. I was pleased with the way Water For Elephants, our last book discussion book, turned out on the big screen, so let’s hope that they do the same this time around.

Enjoy:

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My Help on The Help

WARNING! CONTAINS SPOILERS! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!

Like my fellow bloggers this week, I too thoroughly enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. It was an engaging story with (mostly) well-developed characters that I grew to (mostly) care about. Nevertheless, I did have a few minor critiques that just bugged me about the book.

First, it took me awhile to get used to hopping back and forth between characters. I would just be getting really involved in a particular narrative when it would switch to the next character. I have a tendency to read quickly and sometimes skipped over the heading that we were starting with a new character. It would take me a few paragraphs of being very confused before I realized I hadn’t switched with the book. As I got further into the book I got used to the hopping around but I still found some of the transitions jarring.

My next critique is largely petty. I understand the author used various references to help provide context to the reader on what was going on in the broader society and when certain events were taking place. In a lot of cases, I felt these drop-ins interrupted the flow of the overall story. I’m happily reading a maid’s narrative when all of a sudden she’s talking about a man on television being interviewed about zip codes. What? Where did that come from? Like I said, I’m guessing Stockett used these references so the reader knew when things were taking place but the advent of Shake & Bake and the introduction of zip codes really didn’t help me at all with the timeline of the story. Call me crazy or ignorant, but apparently these little factoids seemed to have escaped my educational upbringing. Rather than helping with the timeline of the story, part of me felt like the author was using these devices in a “neener-neener look how smart I am” kind of way, which just annoyed me. I’m pretty sure that probably wasn’t the intent but it felt that way to me just the same.

One thing I did begrudgingly appreciate about the book was that everything wasn’t neatly tied up at the end. Did Skeeter make it in New York? Did Aibileen find a new job? How did Mae Mobley do without her? Did she remember the lessons Aibileen tried to teach her? Did Minny really stay away from her abusive husband this time? And gosh darn it, did Hilly finally ever get her due? I’m a sucker for happy endings. I like all the characters I grow to love to have their own happy endings and the villains to be properly punished. But in this kind of story, such an ending would have cheapened the overall story, because that isn’t how life works. Abileen and Minny were members of a disadvantaged class and Hilly had all the privilege in the world. Often enough, sadly, life has a tendency to maintain inequities rather than change them. Had everything turned out rosy for our protagonists, the book would have lost all meaning and cause for reflection. While part of me wanted the over-the-top happy ending, I’m glad it turned out as it did.

All of that being said, I did really enjoy this book and I will happily recommend it to others and perhaps pick it up again at some point in the future. I’m a bit concerned about the movie though. So much of the “meat” of the characters is revealed in their inner dialogue. I’ll be curious to see how the movie develops these characters without excessive use of voice-overs. Guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

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Waiting for “The Help”

Isabel is taking a short break, but Our View From Here welcomes the return of Erin for this week and next!

My book club has had “The Help” at the top of our list for a year, but we waited until it came out in paperback this spring to read it. Perhaps a silly rule, but once we set it, we couldn’t back down! 😉 It came up as an option every month, as did a few other books we had to wait for.  There are so many fantastic books out there to read – we decided it’s good to have a guideline or two to help us choose!

I loved this book.  It was worth the wait.  Kathryn Stockett has quite a talent with language and dialects.  She creates three specific characters with distinct voices and alternates telling the story from each of their perspectives.  It’s a story told somewhat dispassionately, bringing very different personalities together to begin the slow process of change in the deep South in the early 1960’s. Each of the character’s hesitations and fears of disturbing the peace are experienced very clearly without becoming precious or over-written.  Throughout “The Help,” huge, national civil rights events are referenced fairly casually, giving markers for the storyline and lending credibility to the novel.

The few men in the novel are truly secondary, support characters.  The book’s focus is on women of Mississippi and the relationships between the colored help and the white women for whom they work.  These women, and the children they raise, are the ones who spend all day in the house together, while the men are elsewhere.  Most accounts of this time period are told from the male perspective and this is a welcome addition to the male-dominated history.

While the following quote doesn’t represent the plot of “The Help” especially well, it stood out to me, and I love the beauty of the language:

“He claps my hands to his hips and kisses my mouth like I am the drink he’s been dying for all day, and I’ve heard girls say it’s like melting, that feeling.  But I think it’s like rising, growing even taller and seeing sights over a hedge, colors you’ve never seen before.”

“The Help” offers an entertaining story from a perspective not often heard; sort of a “behind-the-scenes” of society life at the time. And quite an enjoyable read!

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