Garret Keizer is the author of The Enigma of Anger and A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. He lives in northeastern Vermont and is a frequent contributor to Harper's magazine. In this philosophical work, he examines the different shades of meaning attached to the idea of help. Keizer observes that this desire "cuts about as close to the bone of what it means to be a human as any subject I can think of."

He begins with a look at the subtleties of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, noting that doing the right thing is always complicated and never just simple or easy. In his account of the story of writer Norman Mailer and felon Jack Abbott, Keizer reveals the dangers of freelance compassion. He examines the good deeds and the hospitality of citizens in the French village of Le Chambon who sheltered Jews from the Nazis for further insights into the dangers and dilemmas that often accompany helping others. He comments on the burdens of those in helping professions in his examination of midwives and hospice workers.

Keizer concludes that in our times the natural impulse to kindness or compassion often rubs against our desire for independence. That makes helping graciously and receiving help graciously very difficult. This is an edifying volume on the impulse to help others and, perhaps more significantly, on the shadow side of help.