Book Reviews 8 and 9: “The Help” and “Beyond the Big Talk”

Because I could not put it down and had the day off yesterday, I finished reading Kathryn Stockett's The Help, a powerful novel about life in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Stockett, who is white, writes from the perspective of three characters: two women of color working as domestic help and the younger white woman who decides to write a book about their lives working in the homes of white "ladies." I'm a little older than the author, just about exactly the same age as the little girl cared for by Aibileen, one of the African-American characters. When I was that age, I received the daily care of Catherine Doyle, who did the sort of work Aibileen and Minny do in the book, but I hope in a very different environment at my house, in my hometown, Portsmouth, Virginia (known here affectionately as Jane Austen's Village). 

My friend, Ruby, and I have discussed the complexity of telling other people's stories, when we are very privileged, educated white women who loved the black women who cared for us, but also know we don't fully understand their stories. Perhaps as an activist (Ruby) and a pastor, we hesitate. But Stockett is a novelist, and a lot of this book is about the catharsis of writing, something she required when she began the book in the aftermath of disaster, living in New York City and homesick for her people in Mississippi and for the way life had been before 9/11. Skeeter, the white heroine, writes to get a life and to escape her life. Aibileen writes her prayers every night, a way of keeping up her skills of reading and writing but a powerful spiritual tool as well. She spends an hour or two every evening, after a long, hard day, writing down her prayers. 

I wonder what my life would be like if I unplugged from the Olympics, or this laptop, and spent my time that way? 

It's an engaging book despite the difficulties inherent in the task she set for herself. But I'm a white girl, just like Miss Skeeter, and Miss Kathryn. I hope I'll get to hear/read more diverse opinions, somewhere.

On a quite different note, I also finished reading Rev. Debra Haffner's Beyond the Big Talk: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens. Debra is a Unitarian Universalist pastor, a sexologist, an educator and a mother. I'm on my third trip through high school as a mother, so this is not new territory for me. I found her book to be thoroughly in tune with my thinking, so naturally I liked it a lot! More seriously, there were great check-lists and self-quizzes for parents or to share with your teenager, to check in and be sure you've really talked about the things that may come up in their lives. I would say Debra and I are exceedingly like-minded, that was not an exaggeration above, so if you've read my blog posts on this topic you won't be surprised to know that she falls within that liberal sphere that wants kids to have all the information they need so that they will be LESS tempted to engage in sexual activity before they are ready. 

I believe it works.

Although LP and I both want to know, in case you read this Debra, why Masturbation is missing from the Communications Quiz on pp. 20-21? (Unless we should include that under Sexual Pleasure/Orgasm.)

I highly recommend the book, especially if you haven't lived through this part of life yet and don't have the kind of great Family Living/Sex Education curriculum we have here in Portland, a program that helped our conversations all along the way. I am the mother of three, and I must admit my discussions with Snowman and Light Princess have been much easier than the ones I had at first with #1 Son, who refused to speak to me for about three days after I mentioned condoms. We've already lived through the college phase, too, and I highly recommend that section of her book. 

The key is to know what your values are and why. Think them through without being reactionary. Look at your young people's lives through the lens of your own experience and beliefs, and talk to them. I hope Debra would agree.

5 thoughts on “Book Reviews 8 and 9: “The Help” and “Beyond the Big Talk””

  1. Thanks for the lovely review. I would think masturbation would be included in any discussion of pleasure and orgasm with a teen, but I’ll keep your comment in mind if we move to a third edition! And I agree with your last statement. I would add the key is start early! It is much easier to talk with teens if you’ve been talking about sexuality right from the start. Your readers with children 0 – 12 might like my book for them: “From Diapers to Dating: Every Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children.” Thanks again, Rev. Songbird.

  2. Both books sound great. I heard an interview with the author of The Help on NPR (about a month ago? Can’t remember). The interviewer did ask her about her portrayal of the African-American women in the story, how she crafted their voices and how she worked her way through the intellectual minefield of interracial portrayals. It was a good discussion.
    The second book does indeed sound like a useful tool for parents and mentors of teenage youth. It sounds a bit like the tenth-grade curriculum created at my high school– I think it was titled, “Human sexuality and the parental investment.” There was a whole week spent on sexual orientation and gender identity. As tenth graders, we were alternately freaked out and fascinated, but I watch the adult lives of my classmates unfold, I think that curriculum has served us all very well.

  3. You are welcome!
    Mainecelt, I find my kids, especially the youngest, to be totally matter-of-fact about how people might turn out or how they are, and I give most of the credit for that to the Portland Public Schools and their curriculum. It’s great when it works out that way.

  4. OK, now I’m feeling motivated to read the book, if only to be able to talk with you about it.

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