This is the first installment of a new series in which Trop writers answer the discussion questions in the backs of books like The Help.
1. Who was your favorite character? Why?
Minny. Because she shat in that pie.
2. What do you think motivated Hilly? On one hand she is terribly cruel to Aibileen and her own help, as well as to Skeeter once she realizes that she can’t control her. Yet she’s a wonderful mother. Do you think that one can be a good mother and, at the same time, a deeply flawed person?
I don’t remember any scenes depicting Hilly as a wonderful mother. Why is question number two so eager to set up a redemption opportunity for the most evil racist in the book? Who wrote these questions?
3. Like Hilly, Skeeter’s mother is a prime example of someone deeply flawed yet somewhat sympathetic. She seems to care for Skeeter—and she also seems to have very real feelings for Constantine. Yet the ultimatum she gives Constantine is untenable, and most of her interaction with Skeeter is critical. Do you think Skeeter’s mother is a sympathetic or unsympathetic character? Why?
I think Skeeter’s mother is slightly sympathetic because she has stomach cancer, and I wonder whether giving her stomach cancer was a way for Stockett to force us to sympathize with an unsympathetic character, which would be a savvy thing to do, or a way to force a sympathetic element into an otherwise completely unsympathetic character, which would be a bit of a cheap trick. Skeeter and Aibileen and Minny are balanced characters—Stockett’s really careful, for example, not to make Skeeter more of a liberal than she is—but with Skeeter’s mother, I found myself thinking, “Fine, fine, she has cancer, I get it, it’s hard to turn all the way against your own mother.”
4. How much of a person’s character would you say is shaped by the times in which he or she lives?
Somewhat? I think the Skeeters, Aibileens, Minnys, and Hillys of the world are all still out there.
5. Did it bother you that Skeeter was willing to overlook so many of Stuart’s faults so that she could get married, and that it wasn’t until he literally got up and walked away that the engagement fell apart?
Not really, actually. Love has special trump power and can make people irrational. Skeeter didn’t seem too preoccupied with marriage to me. She wanted to love and be loved. I think that’s totally forgivable, especially since she told Stuart about her project—there’s no chance that she was more covetous than she was honest.
6. Do you believe that Minny was justified in her distrust of white people?
7. Do you think that had Aibileen stayed working for Miss Elizabeth, Mae Mobley would have grown up to be racist like her mother? Do you think racism is inherent or taught?
I think that Mae Mobley would’ve grown up to be racist, but not necessarily like her mother. Maybe more like Lou Anne: racist in a more subtle way, without such open hostility; good to Louvenia, though Louvenia’s never around without her uniform on.
I’m generally distrustful of this type of question—I think that nature and nurture are not only inextricably linked, but not really two different things. I think it’s misguided to try to separate them. But I don’t want to dodge this question so I’ll answer it.
I think that there are both inherent and taught aspects to racism. I think that people inherently band together when they feel threatened, and that race is an entrenched way to define those bands. I do think that we can learn not to define our bands that way though, and that we can learn that defining bands that way is bad. Or rather, we can unlearn to define those bands that way and be more like children like Mae Mobley—banding together around warmth and goodness instead of skin color.
8. From the perspective of a twenty-first-century reader, the hair shellac system that Skeeter undergoes seems ludicrous. Yet women still alter their looks in rather peculiar ways as the definition of “beauty” changes with the times. Looking back on your past, what’s the most ridiculous beauty regimen you ever underwent?
Whew. Tough one. But first, I just want to say that Skeeter, who’s white and becomes an emissary to the black community (by writing a book called Help that’s a series of interviews with real black maids—The Help has a book within a book), goes through so much trouble to fix her frizzy hair because doing so draws an obvious parallel between her and black women. I’m not sure why the question left that aspect of things unstated. I thought that was the whole point of having Skeeter’s hair be the way it was.
But as for my own personal beauty. Eh. I went to Laughlin, Nevada a few weeks ago, and while there I expected to sit by the pool a lot. So, before I left, I tried to shave my back with my clippers. I couldn’t reach everything though, so I had—and still have—some shaved patches and some unshaved patches. It sounds ridiculous, but really, it doesn’t look all that bad—with back hair, any way you can reduce it seems to do some good.
9. The author manages to paint Aibileen with a quiet grace and an aura of wisdom about her. How do you think she does this?
This is the toughest question on here. On the one hand, Aibileen has been dealt a really tough blow in that her son Treelore is dead and she, while allowing herself grief and sadness, has responded to his death not with bitterness, but with an outpouring of love for her friends and neighbors and the children she’s paid to take care of. On the other hand, the fact that the wise character in the book is a black maid who refuses to be bitter seems to be pretty problematic.
10. Do you think there are still vestiges of racism in relationships in which people of color work for people who are white?
11. What did you think about Minny’s pie for Miss Hilly? Would you have gone as far as Minny did for revenge?
I have a hard time imagining myself shitting in a pie tin, but then again, I can’t imagine being a black maid in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.