You had me at hello…and then

The Help is a novel with a great premise, and much like a book about, say, the Holocaust, you already know who to root for. The lines between good and bad are clearly drawn (those who believe in segregation are bad, those opposed are good)

So as the novel begins, one of the good guys (Aibileen) makes an appearance as the first narrator. The regional dialect is overused  though Aibileen is friendly enough, telling the reader about the household she cares for, her “special girl” the toddler Mae Mobley, and even giving the reader a glimpse of her personal life.

We learn about her recently deceased son, Treelore and Aibileen’s absentee husband the greasiest no-account you ever known, a man she sarcastically calls “Crisco.”

The joke fell flat to me. Still, I’d hoped as the novel progressed to learn more about Aibileen’s long gone husband. And as I continued to read, several things emerged.

Like both Aibileen and Minny’s significant others have serious flaws. Minny’s husband enjoys drinking and hitting her, as the reader is told early on. And that’s part of the problem. Right off the reader is “told” about a character’s flaws, like Minny’s big mouth (page 7)and inability to hold a job.

So as the reader, we’re not privy to any side but the word of Aibileen and Minny (who talks about her abusive husband, and on page 412 calls him a fool and describes how he flops into bed beside her drunk, while she believes the only thing saving her from getting a beating is her pregnancy) I searched the book for any section where Leroy is at least acting civil. I didn’t find one.

But I did find the other maids had similar problems. If there wasn’t a “bad” spouse then the maid herself had issues.

Constantine, the childhood maid of the other main protagonist Skeeter, has an absentee common-law-husband, or a man who left her to raise a child alone.

Yule May, a maid who at least had some college education, is sentenced to prison for  stealing.

And with most, if not all the minority characters having negative labels on them, I wondered why and if the author realized this. To review:

Aibileen- no account, absentee husband who left her to raise their boy alone.

Minny – unable to keep a job due to her mouth, abusive husband who drinks, five kids and expecting a sixth.

Yule May- some higher education (college), but when she can’t afford to send both boys to college (twins) inexplicably, this  self described hard worker with an equally hard working husband turns into a thief.

Constantine, like Aibileen, has an absentee mate who left her to raise a child alone. Though she lies and tells her daughter they were married, it’s revealed later in the book by Skeeter’s mother that they weren’t. So Constantine is an unmarried woman who got pregnant in 1940s (its 1962, and her daughter is now grown).

With the exception of two briefly mentioned males, the other African American men are negatively portrayed, all except Robert, a young lad left blind because he used the “whites only” bathroom  and the Pastor of Aibileen’s church.

This is troubling.

When some readers most often talk about the affection in the book, it’s between the help and the employers. But during segregation, the author seems to forget strength came from those experiencing it together, like a husband or boyfriend. To label the men, especially the black men as abusers and absentee (which I believe is a 2010 perspective and not a 1962 perspective) opens the author up to many questions.

In addition, how many other books would separate the male from the female to that extent? I’ve yet to read a book on the Holocaust where the Jewish male, though frightened or facing death, abandons his family. It’s usually in the course of either working for the Resistance or something else heroic. And if this book was set during WWII, where the Japanese were rounded up and put into internment camps, there would be at least one couple facing the unknown together with nobility. I’ll even venture to guess if this was another Hollywood attempt to portray Native Americans, you’d see a couple, much like Kicking Bird (played by Graham Greene) and his on screen wife Black Shawl (played by Tantoo Cardinal)  in the movie Dancing with Wolves.

So why do the African American males become separated from African American females in The Help? Moreso, why are they either deceased (Treelore, Aibileen’s son) abusive (Minny’s husband Leroy) or clueless (the pastor, who gives Skeeter an award and tell her the congregation loves her “like she’s one of their own”)

The white male leads (at least they get to be leads) fare better.

The reader does get a chance to give an informed opinion of Stuart, Skeeter’s almost beau because he has extended scenes and dialogue, and yeah, he’s an idiot, but what he does to Skeeter won’t land him in jail. Minny’s husband seems to have no redeeming qualities as written. Skeeter’s father reads as positively liberal, and Johnny Foote, Celia’s husband is probably a man any woman would be glad to have.

Of the entire lot of black males, Aibileen’s son sounds the most promising, however he’s no more than a memory to her, spoken fondly of in the beginning of the book, and then quickly replaced whenever his name comes up as the reader is treated to Skeeter’s prolonged grief over losing her beloved maid Constantine. It’s important to note that while it had been Aibileen and her only son for a number of years, he’s been dead only two years by the time the novel begins. Yet Constantine has been out of Skeeter’s life almost double that length of time.

If the bond between a mother and her deceased son doesn’t warrant more page time in the book, how can Skeeter and Constantine’s almost brief time together in comparision take over the latter parts of the novel? With the “Skeeter mourns Constantine twist”, the big reveal concerning Skeeter’s mother dismissing Constantine ends up being a bust, much like the “special pie” which holds sway over Hilly.

For as much as Skeeter proclaims to miss and adore Constantine, her recollections border on viewing the woman as a curiousity.

She describes Constantine as tall was well as stout, dark in color though she’s bi-racial (most of the African American females are given similar descriptions) and observes her whole body rambling and loose at the joints.  Although Skeeter is overly sensitive about her looks and height, Stockett as the author has Skeeter the book’s primary  liberal making obervations that sound as if they should be coming from Hilly, the book’s villain.

Sometimes two girls from next door would come over to play with me. named Mary Nell and Mary Roan. They were so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary. -Skeeter, pg. 62

Constantine was so close, I could see the blackness of her gums– Skeeter, pg 63

In addition, I wasn’t sure if Stockett was trying to be funny or show that Constantine was slow witted. Note this exchange between Skeeter and Constantine:

“I was in attic, looking down at the the farm,” I’d tell her (Constantine) “I could see the tops of the trees.”

“You gone be a brain surgeon! Top a the house mean the head.” – Constantine’s response to Skeeter, Pg. 63

To sum up my reading experience up with this novel, it wasn’t a pleasant read.

And while I take note of the numerous others who’ve fallen in love with the novel, even praising the spot on black vernacular, I wonder. How many of them even know any black people?

Because much like  Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin, The Help is being embraced without so much as a second look at the mixed messages held in the stereotypical white characters (every husband is loyal, liberal and an upstanding member of the community, except for the naked pervert.  White women are the real villains of segregation, their mates just listened to them or specifically Hilly Holbrook). And the often offensive portrayal of black characters, with their skin color described as black as asphalt, black as night, etc. “No-account” men, bratty children (the white kids in this novel read like a dream. Minny’s kids are brats, and Minny even smacks one for talking about her white employer!)

The Help left me wanting…and wondering. What’s truly so wonderful about this novel?


2 Responses “Commentary” →

  1. Steven

    June 28, 2010

    Just thought I’d stop by and say hello! It’s a nice place you’ve got here.

  2. After some discussion and thought, I’ve decided not to read The Help. In a nutshell, the reasons have to do with the author not doing an adequate amount of historical research.

    I’m convinced that it is a “good fiction story,” in the sense that it is a page-turner. I haven’t read it to know for myself, but I believe the people who like it. I am a fan of good historical fiction, and I am biased against books in which the author doesn’t take enough care to “get it right,” and authors who tell a good story at the expense of historical authenticity.

    As a fan of historical fiction, I’m always searching for good books. I’ve made the decision not to read many of them because they don’t meet my minimum standards, so my rejection of The Help is not out of the ordinary. Normally I judge a book’s worth by looking it over at a bookstore. In judging books, I find it more effective to assume that the book is bad and it’s got to convince me that it’s good. There are just too many books to read in a lifetime, and it’s a fact that most books are not that good.

    The Help was different in that way. It’s a bestseller with a lot of buzz, and so I engaged in online discussions about it, seeking out any criticisms. I figured that intelligent criticism would help me determine if it really was a book I’d want to read, given my standards for historical fiction. As I’ve said, the criticisms were compelling enough that I’ve decided not to read it.

    Then there is the question, in the near future, of the movie version. Will the movie be better than the book? My standards for movies are not as high as for books. I sometimes watch movies just for light entertainment, and there isn’t as much time invested in a movie as in a book. When the movie is out, most likely I will once again look at any criticisms and then decide.

    Now, before anyone thinks that I am letting other people tell me what is worthy and unworthy, keep in mind that I am an active participant in the discussion. The criticism has to be reasonable, intelligent, and compelling, and in the end it is MY judgment and MY decision. 🙂


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