A Failure to Communicate

Posted on October 19, 2010




UK Book Cover of the Help


A reader from the UK was kind enough to answer a question for me on another site. It seems the UK version of The Help also has the erroneous info about Medgar Evers being bludgeoned. (on PG 277)



This same reader also revealed how the book was being promoted in the UK.


From Amazon’s UK Site Promo:



The other side of Gone with the Wind – and just as unputdownable (The Sunday Times )

A big, warm girlfriend of a book (The Times )

A compelling, great first novel, with soaring highs, poignant side stories and laugh-out-loud anecdotes. You’ll be sorry to finish it (Psychologies )

A wise, poignant novel. You’ll catch yourself cheering out loud (People )

Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver… There’s Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son’s tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from College, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they’d be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell…


Here’s the Sun Times review where the GWTW line was taken:

Within a few pages it is obvious that Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (Fig Tree £12.99) is not from the life-is-a-whole-heap-of-beans school of American Deep South writing, but warm and sincere nevertheless. Yet the reader will have to decide whether the author is good enough to persuade us that she has the authority or experience to write as a black person in Tennessee during the era of “Jim Crow” laws in the 1960s. If you feel that she has, the novel will suck you into the lives of Minny and Aibileen, two black maids, and Miss Skeeter, the white girl who persuades them to let her write about their lives for a book that will cause mayhem if it is published. Here on the page is the hounding of human beings, the terror and injustice, the courage needed to take the first steps to dismantle such an out­rageous regime — writ mundane and within a domestic context, but huge in its ramifications. It is the other side of Gone with the Wind — and is just as unputdownable.



Here’s more of the Times review. And yes, feel free to have a WTF? moment at the last line.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett Fig Tree, £12.99; 451pp This is a big, warm girlfriend of a book about female love that transcends race and class. It’s set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 and Aibileen is a black maid, raising her 17th white baby. “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do,” she says, “along with all the cooking and the cleaning.” Her best friend, Minny, is a short, stout termagant of a cook. Skeeter is a white girl fresh out of college who is now expected to get married. These three women manage to reach across the gulf, to try to change their world. The author, herself a native of Jackson, has a fine understanding of the delicate relationship between Southern belles and their mammies.



Unfortunately, I didn’t view the novel the same way as all those highly entertaining reviews.  


“The other side of Gone with the Wind – and just as unputdownable”

Did I miss something? Was the novel about slavery? Was Mammy still alive in 1962? Or maybe this is referring to Faye Bell, a woman who can remember Yankee Soldiers and still feels the need to clean though she’s over one hundred years of age (Pg 257)


“A big, warm girlfriend of a book”

No. Just. No.


“A compelling, great first novel, with soaring highs, poignant side stories and laugh-out-loud anecdotes.”

And who soared where? Half the novel Aibileen was cowering from fright over Miss Leefolt and Hilly, and that damn cockroach hiding under the paperbag. Minny was terrified of Johnny Foote finding out she was working for Celia, and at home she was scared of her abusive husband. As far as the laugh out loud anecdotes. Let’s see… was it when Aibileen compared her skin color to a cockroach? Okay okay, I know. It’s like when ever blacks are portrayed, folksy sayings just spill out. Like YES. WE. CAN.


“A wise, poignant novel. You’ll catch yourself cheering out loud”

Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Although I did throw the book across the room at one point.


 “Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962.”

See a city in the terrifying grip of a twenty-four year old woman named Hilly Holbrook.


“Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue”

Watch out for Minny’s secret ingredient. Because it’s certainly not that good vanilla from Mexico 🙂    



The "Sassy" Centaur from Disney's Fantasia - the character was cut from later versions







The reviews from the UK don’t surprise me. Assumptions about African Americans, and the almost uniform agreement that caricatures like the ones in The Help are “authentic” will probably always be around. Years ago, there were two novels which dealt with race that were also huge best sellers and sparked intense debate. One was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The other was Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life.


Take a look at what some newspaper reviews said about the novel Imitation of Life.

“The black, bulging Delilah abounds in the warm vigor which is Fannie Hurst at her best. I can think of no character of (Hurst’s) since Lummox who is as actual a creation as the mammy whose face and skill were the foundation of Bea’s fortune. (NY Herald Tribune)

“One of the most magnificently drawn characters in all the great store of literature depicting Negro life.” (Cinncinnati Enquirer)

“Most of us have at some time known a servant who partook in some measure of the nature of Delilah.” (Christian Science Monitor)

In the novel Delilah is described as “the enormously buxom figure of a woman with a round black face that shone above an Alps of bosom…the chocolate and cream effulgence that was Delilah. The heavy cheeks, shellacked eyes, bright, round and crammed with vitality, huge upholstery of lips that caught you like a pair of divans into the luxury of laughter.”

Any of this sound familiar?

How about when African American critic Sterling Brown wouldn’t join the lovefest for the book:

“It requires no searching analysis to see in Imitation of Life the old stereotype of of the contented Mammy, and the tragic mulatto . . . Delilah is straight out of Southern fiction. . .Her idiom is good only in spots; I have heard dialect all my life,  but I have yet to hear such a line as “She am an angel.” Sterling Brown’s review from the magazine Opportunity.

All this was going on in 1933, and now here we are in 2010 with African Americans still being portrayed as docile servants who know their place.

Here’s Delilah’s dialogue in 1934 movie when Bea, the woman Delilah and her daughter Peola (gotta love that name. Sorta like Cleontine, Pascagoula, Jameso, Treelore and Plaintain from the Help) live with. Bea offers to give Delilah 20% of the pancake business that was Delilah’s famly recipe:

Bea: “You’ll have your own car. You own house.”

Delilah: My own house? You gonna send me away, Miss Bea? I can’t live with you? Oh honey chile, please don’t send me away. How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie if I ain’t here? I’se your cook. And I want to stay your cook. I gives it to you (her family’s pancake recipe), honey, I makes you a present of it.” 



Delilah in Imitation of Life





Aibileen expresses almost the same sentiment of devotion and affection for Skeeter:

That night I lay in bed thinking. I am so happy for Miss Skeeter. She starting her whole life over. Tears run down my temples into my ears, thinking about her walking down them big city avenues I seen on tee-vee with her long hair behind her. Part a me wishes I could have a start too. The cleaning article, that’s new. But I’m not young My life’s about done.


  And Minny decides to take matters into her own hands, all for the protection of Miss Celia:

All I know we can’t just sit here like a duck dinner, waiting for him to get in. All he has to do is break a floor to the celing window and step in (keep in mind he’s naked) Lord, I know what I have to do. I have to go out there. I have to get him first. “You stand back Miss Celia, ” I say and my voice is shaking. I go get Mister Johnny’s hunting knife, still in the shealth, from the bear. . . “Lock the door, I hiss behind me. “Keep it locked.” I hear the click.

Unless you are stark raving mad, no one would give their family’s secret recipe up (Delilah, Imitation of Life) and not expect to get paid, and still want to be someone’s cook and maid without receiving wages. Same thing goes for Aibileen’s crying over Skeeter. And going outside to confront a pervert to protect Celia, when she’s (Minny) carrying her sixth child?

Truly weird, this wish fulfillment some writers have for minority characters. It’s the “noble savage” or “magic negro” myth revisited. We’re only considered “good” if we’re willing to show how far we’ll go to prove our devotion and “love” for someone white. Yet neither Skeeter from The Help, or Bea from Imitation of Life exert mch effort themselves to show how much they appreciate the sacrifices of the black character(s). Much too one sided, and it harkens back to the mindset during segregation that insisted blacks be a “credit to their race” by showing humility and serving whites with a smile (Aunt Jemima, a reminder still around today).

All these scenarios, written by two white authors who assume that this is how a black woman would and probably should behave. I. Don’t.Think. So.

In Kathryn Stockett’s case, all this affection the black characters seem to have are based on her childhood recollections of her grandparents maid Demetrie. A single woman inspired far too many clones. Stockett may have thought she knew Demetrie, after viewing her through the eyes of a child. But Stockett never knew Demetrie THE WOMAN.


To be continued….

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