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BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE

Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett

Summary: In Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962, there are lines that are not crossed. With the civil rights movement exploding all around them, three women start a movement of their own, forever changing a town and the way women--black and white, mothers and daughters--view one another.

Questions:
1. Who should tell this story? This novel has been criticized by some who think that the author, who is white and did not grow up during the Civil Rights era, does not have the “credentials” to tell this story.

2. Did the author capture accurately the voice of the maids? Were the characters authentic to you? Did you think they were too “black and white?” Most of the blacks were portrayed as heroic and all suffering, while the whites were cruel, negligent and clueless.

3. For the most part, the characterization of the white women we meet in this novel is one-note. They are not interested in or aware of the atrocities that surround them and in which they play a part. What is it about the time and place that fosters this detachment from reality? Did it surprise you that the whites in the novel were so blind to the injustice of their actions? Why do you think that was?

4. Aibileen describes the brand of vengeance white women wield as particularly destructive. “They got a shiney set of tools they use …” Slander is a weapon of the powerless. How are the white women in the novel powerless?

5. How would you characterize Skeeter’s mother? Her ultimatum to Constantine, the maid who raised Skeeter, forced Constantine to leave, even though Constantine worked for the family for 29 years. Were her actions in any way justifiable?

6. Is Hilly Holbrook’s control over the other women in Jackson believable? How is she able to exert such influence over everyone else’s thoughts and actions?

7. Who do you think had more influence over Skeeter – her mother, Hilly or Constantine?

8. Do you think it was fair of Skeeter to involve the maids in such a dangerous undertaking when they had so much more to lose than she?

9. Do you think that Skeeter, for all her good intentions, exploits Aibileen and the other black women for their knowledge and for their experiences? Do you think Skeeter inadvertently demonstrates a lack of respect for Aibileen’s rights and feelings? In what ways?

10. On page 156: Skeeter says, “Aibileen fills my iced tea like we were the strangers we were meant to be.” What does this reveal?

11. Aibileen’s relationship with Mae Mobley was the most compelling part of the novel. Do you think the stories Aibileen invented for Mae would stand up against the racism the child will encounter throughout her life?

12. The deacon of the church that Aibileen and most of the other maids attend makes the statement, “Mississippi and the world are two different places.” In what ways is this true? In what ways is it not true? Remember Miss Stein, the editor at Harper and Row, who encourages Skeeter to hurry up and write the book, “before this Civil Rights thing blows over.”

13. The author refers to the lines that separate blacks and whites. But lines are, at least, not ambiguous. For instance, Minny is angry at Celia because Celia treats her like an equal, even a friend. “She doesn’t see the lines,” Minny complains. Comments?

14. Celia Foote is more a caricature than a character, yet she serves as a foil for the other overdrawn personalities of the white women in the novel. Did you think this character could have been better developed to focus more on her strength than her weakness? Consider the scene where Celia fights the intruder. Minny says, “I see the white trash girl she was ten years ago. She was strong. She didn’t take shit from nobody.” Yet throughout the book, Minny has only demeaning comments to make about Celia. Why do you think she is not more understanding of Celia and maybe even grateful to her?

15. Does it make you wonder what we are not seeing now? What corollaries can we draw today -- in race relations and in other areas of human activity?

16. Do any of you have experience growing up in the Civil Rights era? What was your reaction to the events – the sit-in at Woolworths, the Freedom Riders, James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi and the ensuing violence and riots, the murder of Medgar Evers, the March on Washington, the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964? Did you realize the importance of what was happening?

Related Information:
During slavery, whites feared violent rebellions by black slaves. However, such events were rare because of the conditions in the South that made such rebellions almost certain to fail (e.g., Nat Turner's Rebellion).

However, slaves did engage in acts of day-to-day resistance ranging from deliberately breaking tools used to work the crops (field hands) to spitting in soup (house slaves). Occasionally, a house slave was alleged to have poisoned or attempted to poison the food of the master and his family. But, generally, masters believed they could trust the slaves they selected to work in the big house. This, of course, worked to the advantage of the slaves, who were often "invisible" as they served the food and listened to the conversations taking place at the white dining table. House slaves also were in a position to negotiate on the behalf of other members of the slave community. However, for slave women, particularly young, attractive women, working in the big house also meant that they might attract the lustful gaze of the master, the sons of the house, or other male relatives or visitors. House slaves often had blood ties to the white family.

In the first half of the 20th century, black women were a part of the "Great Migration" from rural areas to towns and cities in the South, and northward and to the mid-west and west. Women often found it easier than did black males to find employment. However, as domestic servants, they had to decide whether they would take a job that required rooming in the home of an employer as a "live-in" servant, or whether they would "live-out" and go to work each day. Either choice offered advantages and disadvantages. A "live-in" servant could count on room, board, and having to deal with the demands of only one steady employer. However, the “live-in” domestic lost the freedom and privacy of having her own home, and often could only see family members (including children) on her day off. The domestic worker who lived out often worked for several employers during the course of a week and had to deal with the demands of each of them.

However, she had the opportunity to go home to her family each night or to pursue the life of a single woman. Whatever the domestic's living arrangements, the employer exercised a significant amount of power over the domestic's life because of the employer's power to fire a domestic at will or deduce/withhold wages for alleged damages. An accusation of theft ("pilfering") was one way of avoiding paying a domestic for work done.

Employers sometimes gave their domestics cast-off clothes. The domestics themselves sometimes took leftover food from the kitchen to supplement their own families' meals. Sometimes the employers gave them permission to take home leftovers.

infoplease -Civil Rights Timeline

Examiner.com (Charlottesville, VA) -To Kill A Mockingbird


About.com- Folksingers and the Civil Rights Movement

Mississippi Writers Page- Medgar Evers

Questions and related information provided by Frankie Bailey and Mary Cuffe-Perez

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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