Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Year of Publication: 2009
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.44
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3
Plot Description: A young white woman who returns from college to Jackson, Mississippi to find that the black maid who raised her from her childhood onwards is gone. Abileen is a black maid who is currently raising her seventeenth white child. Minny, Abileen’s best friend, also works as a maid, and is one of the best cooks in the area, but her sharp tongue means she loses her job easily. Set in the Segregation-era United States, The Help tells the story of how Skeeter, the white girl, helps the black maids working in and living around her home tell their stories of working for white families.
This is a hard book for me to review, and I might not have attempted it if it weren’t for (a) my obsession with reviewing every single book I’ve ever written, (b) my interest in feminism and intersectionality, (c) the fact that I watched the movie first, loved it, read the book and only then began to wonder whether there were any problems with it.
Here’s the thing. I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m not american, and my knowledge of cultural history in the US is limited to what I’ve learned from history books, newspapers, biographies, fiction and popular media. When a friend asked me my opinion of The Help right after I’d finished reading it, I didn’t know what to tell her. I liked it, sure, but I wasn’t sure how much the book mirrored real life. I’d seen a story I liked, but I didn’t know whether it was the truth.
I then read Roxane Gay’s review of The Help in the book Bad Feminist. And it became clear to me that the story I liked wasn’t really the truth – it was a sanitized, child friendly version of the truth.
“I don’t expect writers to always get difference right, but I do expect writers to make a credible effort. The Help demonstrates that some writers shouldn’t try to write across race and difference. Kathryn Stockett tries to write black women, but she doesn’t try hard enough. Her depictions of race are almost fetishistic unless they are downright insulting. At one point in the book, Aibileen compares her skin color to that of a cockroach, you know, the most hated insect you can think of. Aibileen says, staring at a cockroach, “He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.” That’s simply bad writing, but it’s an even worse way of writing difference. If white writers can’t do better than to compare a cockroach to black skin, perhaps they should leave the writing of difference in more capable hands. In The Help , Stockett doesn’t write black women. She caricatures black women, finding pieces of truth and genuine experience and distorting them to repulsive effect. She makes a very strong case for writers strictly writing what they know, not what they think they know but actually know nothing about.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
I don’t usually go searching for things in particular, so the things I read and see are the things I come across as zombie around. Which makes me wonder why it took so long for me to come across a review of The Help by a black person.
Before I read this review, I thought The Help was a good story. A little over-the-top, perhaps. Could people in real life be as Mean Girls-esque as the white married woman who were the owners of the homes that maids like Abilene and Minny worked in? Could they be as narrow minded and cliched? Reading the book gave me a growing sense of impending doom that the movie never did. Even though I’d already seen the movie, and could therefore presume that no such thing was about to happen, I read with growing apprehension as I waited for someone to catch Skeeter at Abilene’s house. I’d never even known about the existence of Jim Crow laws.
Reading The Help cleared away a little of my ignorance about the time. A lot of people I speak to tend to confuse the Civil War and the abolition of slavery with the civil rights movement. “Civil Rights Movement”, I say. They respond with “Abraham Lincoln?!” This is because, like me, they are neither black nor white, and nor are they American.
“Watching historical movies about the black experience (or white interpretations of the black experience) have become nearly impossible for the same reason I hope I never read another slave narrative. It’s too much. It’s too painful. Too frustrating and infuriating. The history is too recent and too close. I watch movies like Rosewood or The Help and realize that if I had been born to different parents, at a different time, I too could have been picking cotton or raising a white woman’s babies for less than minimum wage or enduring any number of intolerable circumstances far beyond my control. More than that, though, I am troubled by how little has changed. I am troubled by how complacently we are willing to consume these often revisionist stories of this country’s complex and painful racial history. History is important, but sometimes the past renders me hopeless and helpless.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist.
And this is why The Help and books like it are important to someone like me, who is a veritable outsider to the contents of the book. Because with no other frame of reference, reading The Help forces me to take its contents as the truth. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to wonder whether there’s an alternate version of the truth, or to go looking for it. If I hadn’t already been halfway through Bad Feminist at the time, it might have taken me quite a long time to go searching for a black person’s perspective on this book. On the other hand, I might never have gone searching for it at all, and might have spent my entire life believing that The Help (or Gone With the Wind before it) were realistic representations of black people.
I would try and rate The Help on the basis of its story alone, but I can’t. I’m unable to see past the fact that people with as much right to telling the story of the Segregation era have disagreed with its version so strongly. I want more books out there that receive as much popularity as The Help did, and which give me a better understanding of worlds I’ve never seen, worlds I might not ever see. I want this book to be replaced by books that do a much better job than it did.