So I was curious when author Trisha R. Thomas said on her Facebook page that at first she put the book down, but picked it back up and was glad she did. I asked her to blog a review. I confess I put the book down very early on because I couldn't get past a black maid carrying on about how much she loved the white children she was raising. (And, yes, novelist jealousy might have had a little something to do with it too.)
For the record, I believe all writers have the right to tell stories about people different from them. But I believe part of the reason this book did so well was because the author was white. I have a hard time imagining the word of mouth would have been as great if the author were black. If only because if the author were black, most of y'all wouldn't have even been told about the book.
I'd be curious to hear your take. Have you read it? What did you think of it?
Un-Nappily In Love continues with the spirited character, Venus Johnston who bucks the status quo and starts living for the beauty within, instead of what’s on the outside.
Below her review are some books by black authors that get mentioned in the same breath as The Help and The Secret Life of Bees (a book I liked), but so far haven't taken off the same way those books have. I'd also like those of you who read The Help to tell me what other books would you suggest?
The Help, review by Trisha R. Thomas
I was one of the many who judged a book by it’s color. What would a white woman know about the black experience, and why did she feel the need to write on the subject. The choice most likely wasn’t a choice at all. We are who we are. The old adage of write what you know feels powerfully at work here. The author, Kathryn Stockett spent the first sixteen years of her life, nearly everyday with a black woman who took care of her. That woman was her maid, Demitrie. Initially, she sought to write through Demitrie’s voice. Instead the result became “The Help”, a fictional account of Jackson, Mississippi in the 60’s. Pre-civil rights, during the unfolding of a tumultuous time for the south.
"Caring whether or not the author is black or white seems of no substance now."
Kathryn Stockett’s first novel opens with the voice of Abilene in a Southern accent so strong and improper that I know before the first sentence is complete she has something important to say. She is the lead storyteller of this taboo tale of sisterhood between the help and the white women employers in a time when the color lines were clearly marked too dangerous to cross. Soon I will hear another maid, Minny, her voice strong and spirited, raising her children with a husband who is drunk by sundown. Abilene and Minny captured my heart and ear. These were the voices that brought me back to the novel countless times when I’d given up lost in the swirl of names and activities of the Junior League of white women. Who stole who’s boyfriend? Who married who? Sharp tongued characters that blurred into one, two, three, or four at voices at time. After all, once the League ladies got together to play bridge, or plan their next big party, their topic discussion always landed on the “uncleanliness of the nigras” who by the way cooked their food, took care of their children, and waited on them hand and foot. Enough reason at any given time to throw in the towel.
And then there was Skeeter, also in the League of gentle-women. The trouble begins with Skeeter, bored and suffocating under the rigid expectations of her southern upbringing. She returns home from college without a husband and no prospects. Hair too frizzy, reed tall, and short on patience with the town’s pent up old ways, she turns her attention to having a career, unlike the other society climbing women. Luckily the local paper will give her a shot. She’ll become the new Miss Myrna, answering mail in the weekly column giving tips on housecleaning and tackling tricky issues like water stains, and silver polishing techniques. Of course she doesn’t know a thing about house cleaning. Skeeter approaches her best friend’s maid, Abilene, to give her cleaning tips. The beginning of a new relationship. Cleaning tips turn into stories. Nights are spent taking notes of Abilene’s experiences.
Everything that lies in the middle seems to disappear waiting for Abilene to speak again. To hear Abilene mourn the loss of her only son. Filling in the void with each white child she nursed and mothered. Watching the children grow into young adults with the morals she’s instilled in them more so than their own parents.
There were moments gripped with fear and anger. The truth of the times can’t be avoided. One point of the finger and a maid could go to jail, accused of stealing a piece of silver. Their lives were not their own. Held hostage at the whim of their employers.
It’s true that readers are a narcissistic bunch. We find the characters who most resemble us and our thoughts to agree with, cheer for, and feel for in their deepest pain. We celebrate their victories as our own. The Help tells an honest story of women taking a chance and stepping out of old beliefs. You can’t help but love a story when the ones you care about win in the end. Caring whether or not the author is black or white seems of no substance now. Would a black author have experienced living with a maid all her life and know the life of Skeeter, Abilene, or Minny? I don’t know about you, but my only care giver was my mother and the public school system. I’m black, an author, and could not have written The Help. We are who we are. This novel struck the nerves of both black and white readers. It especially hit mine remembering my first novel and being judged as not “black enough” What did I know about nappy? How dare I write on the subject at all? I soldiered on, ignoring the critics. I wrote what I knew to be true from my experiences. We write what we know. If we’re lucky, we do it well. Judging a book by it’s color has to end somewhere. We have to be the change we want to see in others. Open minds mean open pages. The door needs to stay unlocked for all of us. Freedom to write whatever we want. Freedom to read whatever, whomever we want.
Liked The Help? Try these
Glorious by Bernice McFadden's this season's breakout like The Help. (The O review is here.)
I still wish more people would read the heartwarming The Air Between Us by Deborah Johnson (reviewed here). I just recently reread it and it was even better the second time around.
While Lori Tharps' Substitute Me is about a black nanny working for a white family, it takes place in modern day New York and the black nanny in the story is middle-class and educated. (Watch for a Q&A with Lori here next week when Substitute Me pubs.)