Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Help: a Book Review

   Yes indeed, this book is pretty much worth all the hype. It is also worth all the tears, guffaws, and warm fuzzies readers have been describing. Our world famous Oklahoma book club consumed The Help this past month, and at our recent discussion dinner we unanimously voted for its general brilliance. It offers a worthy array of poignant messages; it is concisely yet lightly written; and it leaves enough space between the interwoven stories to let the reader imagine some details and emotions on her own.





   In case you don't know, The Help is about a group of both white and colored women in Mississippi in the 1960's. Its stage is set just as the nation's civil rights struggle was really heating up and right at its epicenter.  It follows events in the women's private and connected lives, some mundane, others headline worthy, but all meaningful. The reader gets to see the inner workings of relationships between domestic help and their white employers, between mothers and children, and between the help and the children, as well as between different generations as the social climate begins to shift.  

   It's all very touching and eye opening and, as our discussion dinner would prove, conversation worthy.  Author Kathryn Stockett proves herself skilled at evoking troubling thoughts without painting a picture too graphic for the average reader to endure. This is why I think The Help is probably appropriate for women of all ages. In fact, I might go so far as to say it's important reading for women of all ages. After all, the 1960's aren't that far back in our cultural history, and seeing anything through a private lens, on a domestic level, can do wonders for driving home otherwise cold, impersonal facts.



This was the stand out line in the book for me.
And as it turns out, the author herself favors it too.



"You is Kind.  You is Smart.  You is Important."
Some loving words spoken from a colored domestic 
to the white child for whom she cared.

   Since this book is so widely known and is currently so popular, I won't waste a lot of time presuming to tell you everything about it. You really should consider spending a few days reading this yourself.  In the mean time, I'd like to share a few of the sharpest points that emerged from our book club discussion dinner and hopefully elicit some thoughtful responses.

  • Motherhood and domesticity: What would it have been like to share that territory with another woman? How does it compare to the modern practice of enlisting daycare to hold down a paying job?
  • How much does the instilling of hatred and bigotry into her family diminish the value of an otherwise loving mother? On the other hand, how much, if at all, does the  benign neglect of the issue of racism (or any other destructive tendency) excuse poor mothering?
  • What personal resources would have been needed for a woman in that era to shun an unhealthy romance in favor of her dreams? How does that compare to the present day? How important is it for  a married couple to agree on politics, etc?
  • Regarding ugly racist vernacular: How does it affect people, who can use it and be accepted, what are the implications? Are people okay with a double standard?
  • How much does the era in which one is raised underscore his or her values? How much are we as a society willing to tolerate racist undertones based on age group or geographic influence?
  • If we are in fact slowly rubbing out the worst stains of racism from our culture, then what is the next controversial territory? Where will we next seek to improve our collective attitude?
  • How far reaching can a child's earliest moral education be?  
   At the end of the book, Stockett offers her own list of eleven discussion points for her novel. We intended to dive deeply into each one but only made it through three and a half of her questions before our conversation took on a life of its own, as is prone to happen with our lively bunch! Anyway, I think it's a great jumping off place for a book club, a modern literature class, or even a Bible study group. These are all questions about social values, morality, the fabric of friendship and family, and personal determination to follow your heart despite the risk and despite the reward.

   As a little bonus, we learned from the two or three girls in our group who had also seen the movie that the screen adaptation follows the book closely. This is a nice surprise, because as all bibliophiles know, movies makers tend to take a lot of liberty with the printed word, and we are often disappointed.  Apparently not much is lost or distorted this time, so i am really looking forward to seeing it!

   Have you read The Help? 
Have you seen the movie?
 What are your thoughts?

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