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The Help, Kathryn Stockett

Write a brief essay about a piece of literature that changed your life.

I like to think I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help before it swept the nation with irrepressible success, but I’m not sure that’s true.  I may have merely been the first in my circle to read it, and that made it no less gratifying.  The book changed my life, and I was delighted to proclaim myself the resource to share this great piece with my fellow lovers of literature.

I bought The Help days before my husband and I would leave for Mexico, a second honeymoon on our tenth anniversary.  Though the book beckoned to me and seemed to follow me around the house, I didn’t start reading until our flight left the ground.  Once I started, I didn’t stop, couldn’t stop.  In fact, I read so incessantly that Robb began to feel as though I’d forgotten that he had in fact joined me on the honeymoon vacation.  The book was an object of contempt for a pretty significant, midweek fight over who would win my attention: my husband or the book. Still, I couldn’t put it down.

There is actually a picture of me reading the book in bed, surrounded by satin sheets, fluffy pillows, and a dozen suggestions.  I wonder in retrospect if Robb snapped the picture to show me the degree of my utter distraction.  (I chose not to post this one.  Some things belong only to him, even now.)

I finished with The Help three days to spare.  I broke the marital tension by reading aloud the chapter about Hilly’s chocolate pie.  This earned me a few points toward restitution.

Stockett writes with such brilliance as she portrays the culture of Mississippi in the 1950s: the privileged, arrogant, ignorant, white women who carelessly employed the tireless, hardworking black women to maintain their homes for little money, less dignity, and no merit.  She depicts the chasm in society, the differences between the black women’s homes and their workplaces.  I especially fell in love with Skeeter – she stepped right into the corner of my heart that is reserved for smart girls who are willing to challenge the status quo, think differently from their peers, and defend ideas and causes.

But I was most struck by this pervasive question in my mind: would I have been willing to blow the whistle?  Would I have been so offended by the audacity of my community that I would be willing to light a fire of change?  Would I have been aware of the social dichotomy, even at all?  Hilly and her friends simply acted on what they had learned from their teachers, parents, and preachers: the belief that white people are superior.  They didn’t have the courage – or intelligence?  awareness? – to look objectively and think independently.  They were self-absorbed and sinking in their own shame.

I wondered if I would have recognized the social bias.  And I wonder even now what social biases I am unaware of, what injustices I should defend, that remain unnoticed and vulnerable while I am unaware, perhaps ignorant, and—God forbid—arrogant.  My copy of the book is stained with salt water and marred from sand since I took it with me everywhere on my Mexican vacation.  So many men and women served me as I vacationed on their island—I, the “rich” American, who basked in mindless hours, salt on the rim, and everything in excess.  I read their nametags and tipped them well, and I lied to myself to say this was enough.

Tricia Lott Williford

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  1. I listened to the audio book – I liked that their were different actors narrating the different voices – perhaps I’ll give it an actual read again now that I’ve seen the movie, although now isn’t the best time for another distraction :o)

  2. When a book compels me to consign myself to a caffeine-fueled, fuzzy-headed bleariness the next day–NOW, not in my twenties when I could bounce back from such recklessness w/ ease I took for granted…those are books that make me remember why I love to read at all. It is such an amazing experience. I can totally relate to the way this book swept you out of your time and space. I’m not sure I’ve yet met anyone who *hasn’t* been transported by this book when they read it. It is so worth the trip.

  3. It’s a rare book that doesn’t feel like work. The Help was one of them. Another, Harry Potter. The Name of the Wind, a third. There are others. I can totally see why this one grabbed you, even in paradise.

  4. I read The Help twice. Once before the movie and then after. lol I loved it! I didn’t want to put it down~ I wanted Minnie, Abilene and Skeeter to be my BFF’s. 😉 I was born during this period so I too young to remember the sixties, but I live only a couple of miles from Natchez, MS~ where I spent the majority of my elementary years. Schools were integrated in the early 70’s~ way behind the rest of the nation~ just before I started school. Natchez is a town with a great number of preserved antebellum homes in the South~ and many, many reminders of the days of trading and slavery. I never really thought much about any of those things growing up~ except from an historical standpoint. To me, today, they are merely reminders of how far we (Southerners) have come. Racial tensions were high throughout my childhood, but the way my mom treated and befriended people of all races caused me to be blissfully unaware that “we” were “different.” Skeeter reminds me most of my mom when she was younger. I didn’t know how many people felt differently until I was at least in junior high. I teach at public school now and I have to say Southerners have changed a lot. Not that racism doesn’t exist at all, but there is not the separation of races that existed when I was little. My three girls were raised the way my mom raised me~ to choose their friends by ” the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.” I really don’t run into people who still think we’re different~ especially intellectually. I’m thankful for ALL the friends I have.
    BTW~ We should all have a spirit of servitude. I believe in tipping servers well, too. By doing that you’re showing your appreciate and, in a sense, serving them. My daughter is a single mom and a college student. She also waits tables~ she needs her tips~ they “serve” her and my grandson. 🙂

  5. We just went on vacation last week and I admit I got lost in this book as well.. kids…husband.. would ask questions and I would take minutes to answer until I got to a “good” stopping point : ) I am sure they felt ignored.. I also questioned my willingness to be the “whistle blower”..

  6. Feel free to confirm my prediction that you got an A on this. 🙂

    • (I lost a half-point for incorrect Turabian, of all things. I’ve lost my touch with footnotes and parenthetical references.)

      But yes, I got an A. 🙂

      • Oops. On the Turabian. 🙂

        • Seriously! 🙂

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