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Book Club with Dick Warner and a Naas Book Club - The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Last month, you the viewers chose The Help by Kathryn Stockett as February's book of the month. We invited viewers to read along with us and send in their thoughts and to participate with their book clubs. Today we will chat about the book with the writer broadcaster and Irish Examiner books' reviewer Dick Warner and 3 members of a Naas book club:

Who Is The Guest?
Dick Warner describes himself as a 'writer, broadcaster and environmentalist'. He is a graduate of Trinity and has lived and worked in a number of different countries. For many years he was an RTE radio producer before taking early retirement to concentrate on his personal interests and to do free-lance work.

He is best known to the public as a writer and presenter of Television documentaries. 'Waterways', a twenty-four part series, and 'Voyage', an eighteen part series, reflected his love of boats and water. Both series were very successful and were shown all over the world. 'Spirit of Trees', an eight part series, reflected his interest in botany in general and trees in particular. He has made other programmes on wildlife and the environment and has written books and many articles on such topics. He writes a regular column as well as book reviews for The Irish Examiner and several magazines.

Dick lives with his wife and two children on a small-holding in rural Co Kildare. He is a keen organic vegetable gardener, collects trees and keeps poultry. He says he has no ambitions to be completely self-sufficient but is trying to practice what he preaches by living a relatively 'green' life-style.

3 Book Club members:

1 Mary Breen, Naas, Kildare

2 Fiona Ui Bhriain, Naas, Kildare

3 Sheelagh Mooney, Naas Co, Kildare

Synopsis by Dick Warner

'The Help', which is Kathryn Stockett's first novel, is set in Jackson Mississipi in the early 1960s. It tells the story of several black maid servants --- the 'help' of the title --- and their middle and upper class white mistresses. The three main characters are Aibileen, a black maid who has lost her own son in a work-place accident but reared seventeen white babies for various families around Jackson; Minny, another black maid who is the best cook in town but finds it hard to get work because she loses her temper and answers back to her employers and 'Skeeter' Phelan. Skeeter is a privileged young white women, educated and with liberal views, who is beginning to be affected by the slow growing wave of change which would soon result in the Civil Rights Movement and de-segregation in the southern States. Skeeter has ambitions to be a writer and gets a commission from a New York publishing house to collect stories from black maids about their treatment at the hands of their employers and to publish them as a book.

Kathryn Stockett was born and reared in Jackson but she was not born until 1969 so she is writing this as a historical novel rather than a personal memoir. She has a gift for describing the nuances of racial prejudice --- the novel is dominated by the tricky topic of whether black maids should be allowed to sit on the same toilet as their white mistresses --- and she weaves all this into a gripping story. There is drama, snobbery, poignant sadness and a lot of humour in the novel.

The Book Club:

Mary - I enjoyed the book and found it very easy to read. It appeared very credible in as much as I know very little of the KKK and the striving for inclusion of black people in their own society. Aibileen Minny and all the other maids' stories were for the most part heart rending and I felt more empathy with them than I could with Skeeter and her enabling the stories to be told. Gretchen the maid who asked Skeeter if she was just another White lady trying to make a dollar off of coloured people?

The only work acceptable to black women seems to have been as a maid for white women, even the educated ones in Mississippi like Miss Hilly's maid who was married before she graduated from college. Her story is probably the most shocking, as all she wanted was a better future for her sons and the polite racist Miss Hilly made sure to prevent that being possible (put her in jail). I liked the humour in the novel like Aibileen telling one of' white children' that if he drank coffee he was' gone get coloured for the rest of his life'.

In the end I thought that Skeeter a white junior leaguer might not be the best person to write about black women's problems even if she acted as enabler and shared the money made on the book. I also thought it was a bit of a token gesture of Katherine Stockett to allow her characters the hope of a rosier future. e.g. Aibileen becoming a writer herself, Minny being able to move on from domestic violence and white Skeeter the full and fulfilled life that she dreamed of.

The other thing was that Katherine Stockett has all the men appearing like small bit actors on a larger stage. They never felt very real to me as these were the men making a lot of money and keeping a whole way of life going. Skeeter's Father going to bed at seven each day and the other husbands who never seemed to know what was going on. It made the book flawed and I was sorry that I felt like that about as I did enjoy it quite a lot.

Fiona - Thoroughly enjoyed this book. I cried and laughed my way through it There was a lot of humour in the dialogue which helped lighten such a serious subject At times I found it quite a tense read wondering the plight of the three main characters. As a mother of young children I found the relationship between Mae Mobley and her mother heart wrenching.

If I was to discuss this book at a book club there a few areas I would like to explore 1. The portrayal of white women. The female characters largely fell in to two broad personality types; bossy manipulative domineering women e.g. Miss Hilly. Elizabeth's mother, Stuart's mother and even for the most part Skeeter's mother, although as she was dying she became more sympathetic. The other type of woman was weak willed and fearful eg. Elizabeth,lou Ann, Cecilia. The only exception to this is Skeeter herself who was a fair and reasonable person.

2. The relationship that intrigues me is between Cecilia (white woman) and Minny (her maid). Minny is risking her life in order to liberate it but, at the same time she seems very uncomfortable with Cecelia's awkward attempts to befriend her. She is as uncomfortable eating at the table of a white woman as Miss Hilly would be in the company of a black woman. Is this a sign that when given equal opportunity, the help are so used to their subservient role that they will be unable to embrace it in a way they would expect.

3 How far the world has come when you see a black president of the USA? When you realise that black people were lynched for the most mindless things up to recent times. Or has the world changed at all?

I would give the novel 8 out of 10 & would definitely recommend it

Sheelagh - Really enjoyed it though she didn't think she would starting off. Wasn't a book she'd have chosen to read as she didn't know enough about that time period. The subject would have made her a little uneasy. Written from a white woman's point of view of what black women went through. It was believable. Fictional but makes you think about the lives these women went through. Wouldn't have known much about the civil rights movement, hard to believe this was less than 50 years ago - such a hotbed of discontent, very dangerous to speak out. Amazing for a first novel. Stockett lived there but still courageous to write about this now. Did she leave herself open to criticism for being white and writing about black women? Aibileen her favourite character. Loved her relationship with Leefolt's daughter Mae Moebely, very touching. Characters all quite different. Hilly though the most racist was also caring for her children. Male characters not well developed. The white men weren't as racist as the women, apart from Mr Leefolt. Men weren't that present in the houses. The humour lifted it, was good. Minny's sister was thought to have a heart defect all her life so never lifted a finger, until later they discovered it had been a fly on the x-ray machine. The dialect worked for her - didn't make a huge difference. Would recommend the book.

Prices / Stockists / Relevant Information
Kathryn Stockett - "The Help", published by Penguin, Fig Tree, July 2009 - €14.99 Fiction

Additional / Misc' Info:
This February is African American History Month - This year's theme: "The History of Black Economic Empowerment," recognizes Jacob Lawrence, Annie Malone and civil rights organization the National Urban League for their work and success during economically challenging times.
John F. Kennedy's assassination also features in the book.
Famous black Americans mentioned in the book: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X
The first African American president Barack Obama

PR Blurb:
Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted not to steal the silver. Some lines will never be crossed.

Aibileen is a black maid: smart, regal, and raising her seventeenth white child. Yet something shifted inside Aibileen the day her own son died while his bosses looked the other way. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is by some way the sassiest woman in Mississippi. But even her extraordinary cooking won't protect Minny from the consequences of her tongue.

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter returns home with a degree and a head full of hope, but her mother will not be happy until there's a ring on her finger. Seeking solace with Constantine, the beloved maid who raised her, Skeeter finds she has gone. But why will no one tell her where?

Seemingly as different as can be, Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny's lives converge over a clandestine project that will not only put them all at risk but also change the town of Jackson for ever. But why? And for what?

The Help is a deeply moving, timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we won't. Itis about how women, whether mothers or daughters, the help or the boss, relate to each other - and that terrible feeling that those who look after your children may understand them, even love them, better than you . . .

Kathryn Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Alabama, she moved to New York City, where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. She currently lives in Atlanta with her husband and daughter. This is her first novel.