The Help

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The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No doubt, there will be those who will hate this book and say that Kathryn Stockett was presumptuous to write it in the first place. But I will not be one of them. Stockett’s story about “Skeeter,” a young white Mississippi woman in the 60s who decides to secretly interview the household help of her junior league friends so she can write their stories is brave and remarkable. The book provides a glimpse of Stockett’s own effort to understand what it was like for “colored women” to work for white families like her own. It is brave because she recognizes her own family’s lack of understanding and appreciation for the painfully unappreciated lives of swallowed pride these women led. And Stockett also sees and understands the irony in the inexplicable love that sometimes developed anyway between “the help” and their white employers.

At the same time, while Stockett does not give her white characters a pass for their prejudices, she also does not turn them all into one-dimensional villains. She reveals their foibles, pride, misguided thinking, and fears, and in the process she reminds us that they, too, are simply human—sometimes grand and sometimes pathetic. Stockett’s story is about so many white Southerners who grew up with prejudices that a new generation would take a lifetime to unlearn. Those who cherish those prejudices are hateful. Those who learn to discard them—well, it turns out they were just prejudiced, not hateful. There’s a difference.

I, too, grew up in the South, in Tennessee. While we never had hired help, my mother has often talked of the maid she had back in Alabama. Ruby was her name, and Mama, like Stockett, thought Ruby was family. No doubt Ruby had her own thoughts about that, but I am certain that my mother and grandmother loved Ruby the best they knew how, which, like all human love, very likely fell short of perfect.

My parents grew up and lived in Birmingham through the worst parts of the civil rights struggles, and they determined that their children would not grow up hating people because of the color of their skin. For all their efforts, I’m sure they unwittingly passed on prejudices they didn’t even know they had, but I love them for trying. Like the time they invited a black man to stay in our home. There was no talk, or even thought, of separate bathrooms and eating utensils. He was a bona fide guest and was served as such. I’m sure it was a big step for my parents—maybe for our guest too—but I look back and love the fact that I don’t remember that much about it. I guess I just thought it was okay, and I suppose that was the point. I have no idea what their friends, or my grandparents, thought about it. They never told me.

Stockett does a painfully beautiful job of portraying the reality of what it might cost to reach across racial barriers to extend a hand of friendship. It might mean you lose friends. It might mean you’re at odds with people you love—and you do love them, even when they are wrong. It means that too many times you aren’t sure if you are reaching across racial lines because you really do love color, or you just feel guilty for being white. Probably both. But the alternative is to live in a one-color world—and that just isn’t an attractive option.

The point of Skeeter’s book, and Stockett’s, is that we have more in common than not, so with this book she issues a gracious invitation to both sides to come to the table to find that common ground and, hopefully, find new friends. I applaud Stockett for making the effort. I hope she finds a lot of people willing to join her at her table.

Note: I listened to this book on my iPod, and I have to say this is a book worth listening to. The readers, Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell, bring Stockett’s story to life with such compelling voices, you feel as though you are sitting at the kitchen table with them, and you don’t ever want to leave. I highly recommend it.

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© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

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