Weighing in on “The Help”

Against my better judgment, I accompanied my mom to see “The Help” at the theater the other day.

Mom’s a native Mississippian, and I just knew she’d sit there grumbling for the entire two-hour showing — “They didn’t get that right.” “It wasn’t like that at all.” “Everybody wants to make Mississippi out to be worse than it was.”

And so on.

Truth be told, I had some doubts of my own. Let’s face it, the girl who wrote this book isn’t old enough to recall 1960s Mississippi (not that mom could help her — by that time, she and Daddy were living way north of the Mason-Dixon line!)

But everything I’d read and heard said ‘Go, anyway,’ so we went.

And I was pleasantly surprised.

Author Kathryn Stockett grew up in Jackson, MS; her single mother and her African-American housekeeper raised her. Before signing on with Putnam, she endured some 60 rejection letters for this, her first novel.

In fact, before the book was even published, her lifelong friend Tate Taylor (also a Jackson native, also raised by a single mother and an African-American housekeeper) bought the film rights for “The Help.” Taylor, an Ole Miss grad, wrote the script and directed the film that opened to rave reviews earlier this month.

“The Help” is poignant on so many levels. It describes the multi-layered relationship black maids had with their white female employers in the early 1960s in the south; it speaks to the rules then in place for interactions between blacks and whites; it portrays societal mores of the time.

Some of it isn’t pleasant — some of the white women were horrid to their ‘help.’ Some were horrid to each other, too.

But much of it seems realistic — the fear of speaking out, the fear of crossing societal lines, the not knowing how friendly to be without actually being ‘friends.’

It’s funny; it’s sad; it’s a slice of life too long neglected, this tale of friendship and struggle and hope.

Stockett has said she wrote the book while she was away in New York, dearly missing the housekeeper she’d grown up with and wishing she’d had the chance to get inside her head and ask her what it was like to be her.

Tate, too, speaks lovingly of the maid who helped raise him. He says racism and bigotry form merely the backdrop of “The Help.” The real story, he insists, is about courage and integrity and the necessity for change.

Stockett said Mississippi, to her sons and daughters, is like a mother; one can complain all one wants about her, but don’t let anybody else say a bad word about her!

Maybe that’s what sold mom; I know it sold me. Stockett did her research, and it shows.

If you haven’t yet seen the movie or read the book, do so. For those who have, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts!

18 thoughts on “Weighing in on “The Help”

  1. Deb,
    Very interesting review. I loved the book with all it’s intricacies and suspense. Having not grown up in the South but in the 60’s, I can vouch only for the racial tension of the times and cringe at the horrid treatment of the help. I know there has been a lot of controversary over the accuracy of the details and the credibility of the author but I found it all very believable and compelling. Larry Brooks of the Storyfix blog did an excellent series on deconstructing “The Help” from the point of view of story structure and it all made sense to me. I haven’t seen the movie but it is on my to-do list. I’ll be interested in what others have to say.

    • I went to her writer’s Website and read an excerpt from the book, and that convinced me to read it as well as seeing the movie. I find it pretty fascinating (and encouraging) to hear how she struggled like the rest of us to get her work published. I think we can take hope from her story, hope that — even in these days of flux in the publishing world — GOOD stories still do get out!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Terri. Having not grown up in the south, I wouldn’t know if she was accurate in her details or not, but it seemed pretty realistic to me. Too often, the film strays far from the book, but this script writer actually was friends with the author, so they managed to keep it on track. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  2. I haven’t even been to Mississippi, so I wouldn’t know if she got it ‘right’ or not. When I first started reading your review, I thought you weren’t going to like it. You fooled me ;)

    I have a copy of the book reserved at the library (I think there are now 31 people ahead of me) but I may end up buying it if the wait takes too long!

    I have not seen the movie yet, but I really want to. I’m visiting a friend this weekend and if her back pain isn’t too bad, we’re going see it.

    • Our library has a waiting list of about 100 to read it! A friend of my mom’s bought a copy, though, so I might persuade her to part with it for a bit while I read it. I found it interesting to hear the old rock ‘n roll music of the ’60s, as well as the goofy-looking clothing and hairstyles!

  3. I thought the book was wonderful and the movie lived up to my expectations. I suggested the book to my mother and she also loved it-when I expressed my horror about how awful most of the women acted….my mother gave a great answer she said, “Katybeth that is just the way it was…” Looking back we see awful (as we of-course should) but growing up on the fringes of racial change things looked much different. I was judging them by today’s standards before today’s standards existed. It was a whole different world. I loved the fact that most of the women were strong women–all of them. Even the one’s I could not stand.

    • Exactly!! As they say, hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, it’s easy to see how horrid some of these women acted, but back then, I understand, it was simply accepted. What I found fascinating was how REAL these women — all of them — seemed. No caricatures, no stereotyping, just strong, human, believable people. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  4. I read the book, and I liked it but wasn’t wowed. And as for the film, the early reaction was negative. To paraphrase what some of Oprah’s ex-friends said about why her film, “Beloved”, flopped a few years ago, black people don’t want to be reminded of how bad they were treated, and white people don’t want to be reminded of how bad they did the treatin.’

    However, the reviews of the film have been good and I haven’t heard one person say she didn’t like it. So I am going to see it, but at the rate I go to movies, it’ll probably be on Netflix.

    • There’s a lot of truth in what you say, Lynne — this is a part of our nation’s history that evokes all kinds of angst. But I’m a firm believer in two things: (1) those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it; and (2) what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Thanks for your insight and comments!

  5. Pingback: Musing: Roasting Marshmallows, My Sweet Mom, & Sweet Award

  6. I love this review, it is very well written! I am on the waiting list to read this book at our library.I did see the film and for some reason I was moved to tears and walked out with mascara dripping down my face.It is a shameful part in our history and sadly the prejudice continues today perhaps not so much with African Americans but certainly with illegal immigrants. I cannot wait to read The Help and I will comment as to the authors work at that time.

    • Hi Nancy and welcome! I found your comments interesting — my mascara was dripping, too! Isn’t it strange how we look back on things like this and call it unenlightened, when it was commonplace and customary back then? We never had maids when I was growing up, but I understand they were very much a part of the families they worked for, at least for some families. And I don’t understand how anyone could mistreat someone who was helping raise their babies!

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