The Help. Can you believe it?
If you can, I hope you'll also believe I didn't read it only to curry favor with this blog's female readers. Nor did I read it only so I could write a gushing, positive review and bump up my traffic numbers. And I definitely didn't read it in order to time this post for the week the movie opens as a cheap stunt to attract new readers.
Actually, in all seriousness, the reason I read it is simple curiosity. No literary novel in the last several years has garnered the attention and readership The Help has. If there's such thing as a modern classic, it's it. So, to consider myself a well-rounded biblio-nerd, I read.
Even before I read, it was easy to tell why the large majority of The Help's readers are female: It's a story about women written by a woman. And just look at the cover — the washed-out burnt sienna/yellow color and the precious little birds surely are intended to appeal to women more than men, right? Those are probably enough to ensure most men will only give it a cursory glance. But I'm here to tell you, I liked it, and if you're a beer-swilling, fantasy football-playing dude like I am, you may like it too.
Here are five reasons why:
5. Everyone likes a good literary revenge — It's not quite on the Monte Cristo scale here, but the cornerstone of this story is a good heaping helping of revenge. For those fellas not familiar, here's the dime tour of the plot of The Help: Two black maids named Aibileen and Minny in early 1960s, early Civil Rights-era Jackson, Mississippi, band together with a young white woman named Skeeter to write a book about their experiences as maids. Despite the risks to themselves and their families, the main reasons the maids agree to tell their stories is that they're angry about the blatant racism and indignity they're forced to endure, and the violence perpetrated upon others in their community (Medgar Evers has just been assassinated). They want people to know their society is broken. And so telling their stories is their form of civil disobedience, and their way to get back at the people who have treated them poorly. I love the idea of using a story as revenge, and if you're a dude, you should too.
4. Almost all the male characters are totally unlikable — Does that sound like a counter-intuitive reason for why dudes should read The Help? Granted, but here's the deal: With only two exceptions (Johnny and maybe Skeeter's father), all these male buffoons are pretty much models for what you don't want to be as a dude: at best condescending and racist and at worst a drunken wife-beater. So, as you're reading, in some weird way, you get a nice sense of "despite all my own short-comings, at least I'm not like these idiots." You feel positively enlightened. And that should always be an effect of a good book — in some small way, it makes you feel good.
3. Understanding the evil and ignorance of racism is important — As I read, I kept thinking, "this isn't an historical novel, it's a novel set in history." Yes, that's parsing hairs, but I tend to think of a historical novel more as a 30,000-foot-view of historical events. And in this novel, you're in the shit with these characters. In this case, that includes a deep, ugly, pervasive racism. James A. Michener once wrote, "Knowledge of the past gives men courage to face the future." But knowledge of the past also gives us courage to change the future. An ideal future is one without racism. And hoping for and working towards that should be the goal, no matter your race or gender. This novel helps you understand how disgusting racism is.
1. Good literature should be gender neutral — I know, that's a bit idealistic — and maybe even a bit contradictory, since I already told you The Help is a feminine novel (I don't mean that in a derogatory way). But for novels that, by any objective measure, are pretty freakin' good, I really think both males and females can find something to like. I took a chance on The Help, knowing full well it wasn't my usual cup'o'tea. But I read with the notion that if such a novel is universally adored, there had to be something there for me, too. And that's really the point of the post, to show dudes not to be afraid of this book. I could spend another 2,000 words enumerating the reasons why The Help is good, but just take my word for it, it is. Just ask your sister, wife, mother or any other female friends, and there's approximately a 100 percent chance several of them have read it and loved it. They can tell you why it's good. I just wanted to try to convince you to ask the question in the first place. Did it work?
Ladies, any other advice for dudes to get the most out of The Help? Fellas, have you read it? What'd you think?