Monday, August 16, 2010

A black author reviews The Help

I haven't read The Help, Kathryn Stockett's book about maids in the south. But I'm definitely aware of it as a phenomenon and as a lightning rod for debate. It raises a lot of questions. Would a similar book by a black author have done as well? Should a white writer write about black characters, and how can you write about other ethnicities well? Is it a good portrayal of black people or are the maids stereotypes? Etc.

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?

The following review is from Trisha R. Thomas, the author of the Nappily Series. Her sixth novel 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


O Magazine recently called 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.)


40 comments:

Andrea S. said...

I have not read it for all the reasons you mentioned. Still not sure if I'm convinced. I'll think about it.

Anne Fernald said...

Thanks for this post. I'm white but I've been very skittish about the book for all the reasons you mention. It just sounded, well--ew....--but this post reminds me to give the book a chance and, more importantly, makes me think it might be *worth* a chance.

PatriciaW said...

I have got to read The Help. At this point, in order to be a voice in the discourse, reading it is definitely a prerequisite.

Glorious is on my TBR list. The Air Between Us was one of my favorite reads last year, one which has definitely been underrated.

Vegetarian Cannibal said...

I'm still unsure...

I dunno if I'll give it a shot. Too often, these books end up being about white people feeling "good" about themselves in a time of racial unrest.

I call it "The Blind Side" effect. Ugh.

Excuse me while I drink bleach.

Rich said...

FWIW, I felt the same way about 'Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' and I was pleasantly surprised by that. I agree that 'The Help' probably wouldn't have gotten the same level of attention if it were by a black author, but if it's a good book, it's a good book.

evelyn.n.alfred said...

I don't plan on reading the book, because of that "ew" feeling Anne mentioned above.

I hope Lori's book is just as successful though.

DenverSoulDiva said...

I read the help and enjoyed it immensely! Initially the title "The Help" took me aback; however I read the bookflap and became intrigued. The characters and story came to life and I could not put the book down. I encourage you to take a chance and read this story..reading for me, like music, is not color driven...the content is what touches and moves me. Will read Glorious..thanks for the recommendation.

Carleen Brice said...

Someone on Facebook suggested Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez as a good companion novel to The Help.

Kim said...

I decided long ago not to read/view this kind of stuff. Which is not to say I wish the author ill, or question her "right" to write it. I do not. But for me the question isn't whether she had the right, or even whether it's a "good book" or not -- the remainder shelves are lined with excellent, powerful, worthwhile novels written by black writers that will never garner the kind of attention lavished on this book. I simply choose not to spend my hard-earned money, and jealously-guarded time, buying in.

I love it that so many black readers are eager to declare that "reading has no color" etc etc. I just wish white readers would do the same.

But then, we have always been the ones called on to be the bigger folks.

Najela said...

Wench is a very good novel. It's a little bit chilling to read when you try to deconstruct the lines between "love" and "slavery". I liked The Help, but I think I liked Wench just a bit more because it stayed with the Black main characters POV the whole way. It seemed very real to me. The Help wouldn't be hurt by leaving Skeeter's story out,but it definitely added something...

Doret said...

I will not be reading The Help

I read a lot of White authors. Many have written Black protagonist that I love. But my reading line as been drawn and The Help is on the other side.

I loved The Air Between Us,

Another suggestion - Page From a Tennesse Journal by Francine Thomas Howard.

K.L. Brady said...

I have to say I have been hesitant to pick up this book. It's not so much the book, but what it represents to me--a double standard. I do feel that had it been written by a black woman (or man), it would've not only been perceived differently (oh there goes another one of those civil rights books), but marketed differently. It has topped mainstream and African American lists. Never would've happened if it were written by a black author. Okay, I won't say never. I'll say highly unlikely. I can't really think of a black author who's really done that since Terry McMillan, but I could be wrong.

With that said, after reading Trisha's review, I'll order a sample on my Kindle and if I really dig it, I'll get over myself and buy it. We'll see.

dc8s said...

Both Wench and The Help are on my (never ending) list of books to read. I suppose, and perhaps a little subconsciously, that I haven't been as eager to devour The Help as I have been other books for some of the same reasons mentioned here. In truth, we judge books by much more than their covers. Eventually, I'll check it out, though, I'm sure.

Carleen Brice said...

@Doret, Thanks for the rec for Page From a Tennessee Journal. I hadn't heard of that one.

Dera Williams said...

Great review. Trish, I loved the way you articulated your feelings. How you started out with doubts and you became immersed in the story.

I had ambivalent feelings and still do about the book, but I am happy I did and ended up enjoying it and feeling guilty about it. On one hand this was this woman's experience, she grew up with maids but could she speak for the maids? My biggest issue was the start contrast of the dialect. Broken, poorly spoken English on the maids' part (when I saw Law for Lord, I almost stopped reading thinking who talks like that?). Southern born and California raised but spending summers in Arkansas, I now some of the cadence of black southern speech and my folks just did not speak like Abilene. On the other hand, you had the whites who spoke the King's English. I saw Stockett in an interview and when questioned aobut this contrast she said her mother, family and friends always spoke proper English. However, she left out the white dialect and cadence of white southerners. It was not brought out in the novel; yes, they may have spoken proper English, but I felt she was not true to southern dialect. There was no Paula Deen in their voices and that was a disappointment. That aside, I wanted to continue reading to find out the fate of these hard-working sisters. We have to accept that there were black women who made over white babies; this is what they knew to do. We also have to accept, those of us who did not grow up in the south, that whites regarded us as second-class citizens, as invisible, to be subservient and serve them. I named my review of the book, Mississippi Goddam after Nina Simone's song, and just knew Amazon.com would not clear it but they did. I also sent the review to Women's Book Reviews and they printed it.

Over the weekend I read The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber. She is white and for one minute I had the thought that I wish this book had been written by a black woman. It was excellent and will easily go into my top 10 reads of the year. TPHORD is an American story; yes it is about an African American woman who leaves Chicago in the early 1900s to follow her man to stake a claim and work the land in the harsh, isolated Dakota Badlands. It is a woman's story; how she wrestled with was she doing the best for her children? This was a book about the frailties of the human spirit and captures the profile of not just a strong, black woman, but a strong, brave woman who forged trails of triump over pain. As Trish said, whether the author is black or white has no substance. This is a well told story and highly recommended.

Trisha Thomas said...

Dera: I love a good woman's story. That's the draw I felt for The Help. I will put the Personal History of Rachel Dupree on my list of reads. Thank you.

Shelia G said...

I probably won't read it and not because of who wrote it. The story doesn't grab me enough to want to read it. Even with the well written review, I will pass on this book.

I have too many other books in my TBR pile that grab my attention and there's only so much time in a day.

Lynn said...

You are so right when you say, "We are who we are." After all, everybody else is taken.

Thank you so much for this thorough, honest exploration of THE HELP. I am not a southerner but I am old enough to remember that time and the way it was depicted in Life Magazine. THE HELP gave me an insider's look and so did your blog.

I am delighted to find this blog and your recommendations.

Lynn
www.writeradvice.com
Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

Anita said...

I read "The Help" and enjoyed it. Let me revise that statement. I started reading The Help, stopped, then listened to it on CD. That made a huge difference for me in how I received the book. I am a black woman who knew the maids in the book. Some of them were my grandmother's and mother's friends. As a little girl, I sat around hearing similar stories told by the maids without a Skeeter to champion their plight. My mother referred to her employers as her "friends." I remember cringing at the word until I drew on childhood memories and indeed recalled they were a wee bit cozy to be employer/employee. Let's just say goings-on at Glen Mary Plantation weren't typical of Southern relationships. Truly, they were friends.

Now I'm on to The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin. Yep, she dedicated the book to her black maid, Eva Lee Miller.

Carleen, you're right. I've read The Air Between Us three times and find something new each time I read it. Have you read The King Of Colored Town by A. Darryl Wimberly? It's also a great Civil Rights read.

bibliophiliac said...

I'm glad this conversation is taking place. I read The Help, and it would take pages to fully articulate my response to the book. I liked KL Brady's and Dera's remarks. In the end I didn't find the book fully honest, although I thought it was well written, and I liked the characters of the maids. The relationships between white and black characters didn't feel honest to me--there was some element of wish-fulfillment in the book. Most white folks participated in the oppression of black folks in the pre-Civil rights south. The Help tries to find a way around that fact in the character of Skeeter, but I just didn't believe in Skeeter the way I believed in Scout of Atticus in Mockingbird. I still think The Help is a good book, worth reading, but it was definitely sold and marketed in a way that was reassuring and palatable to the mainstream readership. I love this blog and other sites like it, because I know that there are great books by black writers that aren't getting the attention they deserve, and I will keep seeking them!

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Maria Geraci said...

I loved The Help. So well written and a story that needed to be told, but I confess, I did wonder how black readers would see the book. I'm a Cuban American and I sometimes cringe at how Hispanics are portrayed in the media, as if we're all one group to be lumped together.

olderwoman said...

I am a White woman, I read The Help. It is a well written book and I confess I found it very engaging as I read it, but it is definitely from a White point of view. Stockett means the book to honor Black maids, and her portraits are of them are sympathetic and affectionate, but ultimately very White-centric and ultimately patronizing. The interior lives of the Black people are quite different compared with books written by Black people. She also portrays the view of a White person who encounters White racism on a daily basis and knows it is real -- no sugar-coated denial, although it feeds into Northern White stereotypes that link racism to overt statements by White Southerners. But her White-centric view has the White heroine giving voice to the Black women and a series of fantasy circumstances lead these voices to be heard and everyone comes out ok, no one gets killed. The book thus falls into the "White savior" genre of race relations writing. In some ways, the most interesting part of the book (if you have enough background to get it) is to see just how much impunity this young White woman thinks she has to challenge the system. The ending is entirely fantasy: a happy ending that could happen only outside reality. A good discussion of this book could happen in a White or mixed-race group if it were paired with books written by Black authors so White readers could see the difference in worldviews. Black readers might be interested in the subjectivity of a White person who genuinely opposes oppression but is still mentally trapped inside a White view, but would probably feel they already know that type.

I appreciate all the suggestions about other books to read. They are going on my TBR list. Again, I really appreciate this site.

Carleen Brice said...

I appreciate all the differing points of view and everyone taking the time to weigh in!

Trina said...

I am an Black woman, who read The Help. I started a very diverse reading group and then actually chose it as our first book. We discussed it last weekend and the varied perspectives on it were very interesting.

I am not a fan of the book for a number of reasons, and I read it. I am not opposed to writers writing about experiences other than their own. We, as creative folks, have the license to do just that. Yet, the fact that this book left so many suburban white readers feeling good at the end of reading about a time wrought with racial tension and inequality, left me feeling quite uncertain about the writer's intentions. There is something quite inauthentic about the book to me. Just my opinion.

I reviewed it here: http://trinaogorman.typepad.com/oldflame/2010/08/review-the-help.html

Notorious Spinks said...

I haven't read The Help and it's not a priority either.

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind, Arthur Golden, a white man, wrote the bestselling book "Memoirs of a Geisha," in the first person. If an author writes outside his or her personal experience, readers can determine the authenticity of the voices in the book, and debate its merits. Isn't it disingenuous to discourage reading something altogether simply based on an author's race or gender?

Carleen Brice said...

It's not the intention of the post to discourage anyone from reading The Help. In fact, quite the opposite. I think the reviewer makes the point that no one should judge the book or any book based on the author's color.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, so let's see....I spend $25 to buy a book written by a white woman, who writes about a white women who gets paid to write an advice column based on information she culls [read stolen] from a black maid. Yeah, sure that oughta make me want to read it.

Iya said...

First, I did, indeed. read THE HELP. I was so impressed with it that I rcommended it to my book club. The fact thst it has been a bestseller and that "maids" are the anchor characters says much about the skills of the author to make a situation "ring true" to so many. The reason I am even commenting here is because it is disturbing to see so many who have formed opinions about the book and its author based on I don't know what. Haven't we been victims of that kind of thing long enough to
not perpetuate it in thid day. To those who read it and enjoyed it, did the epilogue "seal it" for you?

Oh, and I read it twice... the first time on my Kindle, but for the bookclub I gladly bought a hardcopy so I could lead the discussion and literally be on the same Page with the group (Kindle has no page #s.).

Those who have not read it, give it a chance.

plaintain1 said...

I have read this book. And yes it is interesting or perhaps intriguing! Out of all the characters for me, ‘Minny’ is the most interesting. Because as someone who enjoys reading and who is also looking to write, ‘Minny’ is the first black female character that I have come across who is ‘sassy’, has an attitude and certainly does not like white people. Maybe I’m also a bit envious of Stockett for she has managed to get away with it whereas I have sent manuscripts to publishers and have been told that ‘England is not ready to have strong black characters’. I have also been told that if I create white characters, they must not be hurt, harmed, victimized in any way by black characters. If I want to do that, then I must manipulate the English language in such a way that it is not so obvious. My greatest fear that white writers, more and more, are telling ‘our’ story; playing God, and creating black characters where they can be brutalized but also where they are forgiving and accommodating, even though in real life, that may not be happening for white people.

FB said...

"The Help", even though there are clearly issues that make it more than a little problematic, has led me to this site. I am a white European woman in her late twenties and hope to discover black authors. I am doing this, even though I am risking finding white characters portrayed in a very negative light; sometimes portrayed in a way that really contradicts my experience as a white person, living among white people. But I'm prepared to take the risk.

LDB said...

Get over it people... Good ... IS GOOD! And "The Help" is GOOD! Who wrote it is irrelevant. Besides who other than a white person could have a dual perspective of the black-house-maid/white-child experience during the 60's? No one that I know.

I have read it, and I have listened to it (which indicates how much I like it). Although I have to say that listning would be best to truly appreciate and enjoy this story, as it is Sooo well read. The cast of readers truly breaths life into each character.

Stocket successfully wrote a believable, heartfelt, touching, painful, and at at times funny... story that I truly enjoyed. And I will be pushing it to everyone that I know who loves a GOOD story.

Suzanne said...

I really liked The Help. I'll agree there was some wish fulfillment but the story still rang very true to me. I'm a decade younger than the children in the book, but my parents were of the same generation as the white women were and there was a lot there that was familiar to me. Enough so that it brought me to question my own childhood more than I already have.

Nikki said...

When I first saw previews for the movie, I thought to myself this would be one that I will watch when it comes out on DVD. However, when I learned there was a book, I decided to read the story. I am an avid reader. I love both fiction and non-fiction. I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed reading "The Help". I believe that many Afircan Americans (which I am) judge too quickly because this was written by a caucasian. However, if you are open-minded, it should not matter what race a person is. African American authors OFTEN try to depict caucasian characters in their books. Are they always accurate? No. Do we continue to read the stories? Yes. And why? For entertainment purposes. Same holds true for this book. It was a work of fiction. There are many movies that we spend our money on that are just as such. Caucasian screen writers telling a story. I see no difference. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I will be going to view the movie. I feel a lot more readers should keep an open mind and give the book a chance.

Gdukes said...

It seems that racism is alive and well. Even though it is declared that it is okay to give it a try DESPITE the authors race, it is still made an issue. One that this time was overruled, but the fact that it was made is racism in it's truest form.

If you haven't read the book, then that is your loss. I am a white male who grew up with our "help" Ophelia in Jackson, MS But she was never called anything but Ophelia...never was she called the help, or colored, or black, or African American in our lives. She was just Ophelia. She was never asked to use a different bathroom, she was loved and our parents never deterred our love for her or physical affection. She was a member of the family in every right. My mother was divorced and we could't have made it without Ophelia and we did our best to help her to in anything problems she faced just as a friend would do. Yes she was paid to clean the house and watch us, but never treated like she was because of her race. It was just the job she had. Just like my job as a pharmacist is to serve my patients and care for their medical needs. She was a friend, a surrogate mother, and someone for whom we grieved ferociously when she passed away. I think Aibilene is very reminiscent of Ophelia, and reading this book brought back that special love that I miss. Of course there are Hilly Holbrooks in this world. There are black people, white people, cruel people, nice people, tall people and short people. To us it was always about the noun....not the adjective that preceded it. I would hope one day we could move on to that....but I know that there will always be all ends of the spectrum that can't get past a particular adjective, whichever one it might be.

Jack said...

Does the color of the author make a difference? Yes, of course -- if color makes a difference at all anywhere, it does here. As I once heard, black people know a great deal about discrimination against black people. The point of the book is that white people, male and female, have much going on, consciously and unconsciously. It may be that they are more open to the book's message as delivered by a white messenger. The message was, I think, from both black people and white people -- and it seems to be getting to white people and black people alike. This is an important discussion. The book lets people into a dimension they face every day, generally without "seeing" it. Moreover, they don't have to be "in church" to do it, which is the tenor of many books about racially-based injustice. Making the unconscious into conscious knowledge allows conclusions to be made about action. What is unconscious is easy to ignore; what is conscious needs to be addressed. Here, the answer is left to people who have seen a new question, which they haven't had presented to them before in a way that they could address. Great book -- kudos to the author who compiled and made it into part of a literature of truth and to the nameless maids whose courage made it possible. And thanks for stirring up the conversation to those who take part in it. The movie, in my opinion, was as good as the book. Unlike most others, its end was met by applause in the theater in which I attended it. And it was applause well deserved. The book was well chosen and the movie was well made.

Anonymous said...

I found your review after I started listening to the audiobook, since I had to see what others thought of this book. As a white reader (just putting it out there) - the book annoyed me immediately at the thought of the maids "loving" their charges. Even the race issue aside, as someone who has worked with children before, I found this really hard to believe. You can enjoy the kids and your work, but loving them?
The tone of voice used for the maids I find is also very grating. I think that you are right though, who would read this if it were a black author? I also don't like that the Civil Rights issue is really a "background" issue and is cloaked in accusations of stealing silver and Rosa Parks, not people dying and putting their lives on the line for the right to basic human dignity. I am overall enjoying the book (so far), but it is a piece of fluff, and I hope other white readers seek out alternative voices because they read this book. Hopefully, it will lead to greater discourse, as I can say that I probably would have never picked up a book on this topic except for the fact that EVERYONE is reading it. I will definitely be picking up Wench afterward, based on your recommendations.

Anonymous said...

I just finished the book today and to be honest It left me wanting a conclusion, an understanding, a conclusion, a climax for lack of a better word. It was touching, sad, funny but the end fell flat. In the end, Minny still had a bastard for a husband that she now had to contend with.

Most bothersome was the news that the author is being sued by her brother's maid whose name is Ablene, has a gold tooth and whose son died as an adult. Yet the author says it wasn't based on her. She obviously doesn't want to share the profits with her. THAT makes me sad.

Alex Davis said...

As I perused the comments on this board, what struck me most was not whether those who posted liked the book or not. What was most interesting to me was how many individuals took the race of the author into consideration when they decided whether or not to read the book. Wondering what would have happened if Kathryn Stockett had left her name off of the book (like Skeeter) and had published it anonymously ... would more people have chosen to read it? Or fewer?