Saturday, April 17, 2010

160 (2010 #25). The Help

by Kathryn Stockett, read by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell

This audiobook was fabulous. The book is told from the viewpoints of three characters, plus an omniscient narrator for one scene. The readers are perfect for their parts, accents and all, and even do a wonderful job bringing non-narrating characters to life. The story has just enough drama to make it a page-turner, and is great for listening to on a long commute. I found at times I had to sit in the car after my 45-minute commute just to finish an exciting part of the story.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1962 through 1964, The Help is the story of two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, who work at below-minimum-wage for white families. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is a member of the bridge club that meets at the homes of the women Aibileen and Minny work for. Single and 22, Skeeter actually wants to use the degree she earned at Ole Miss, especially since she didn't get the MRS. her mother was hoping for. She wants to become a writer. She manages to get a job with the local paper writing a housekeeping advice column, and starts meeting with Aibileen, her friend Elizabeth's maid, to get the answers to the questions sent to the columnist. Aibileen is 50-something and has spent much of her life raising her employers' children, especially sad as her own son died in his early 20s in an accident at work.

Skeeter comes up with the idea to write a book of interviews with local maids on what it's like to work for white families. She's inspired by the insistence of another friend, Hilly, on including a "home help sanitation initiative" in the Junior League newsletter she edits. Hilly believes all white families need a separate bathroom for their black help to prevent the spread of diseases. Hilly's just put the fourth member of their bridge club, Hilly's own mother, in a nursing home, and spread rumors that back-talking Minny, her mother's maid, has been stealing. Minny, mother of five and wife of an abusive drunk, becomes the second volunteer, after Aibileen, to work on Skeeter's writing project.

What follows is exciting, sometimes scary, uplifting, and sometimes heartbreaking. Stockett has developed wonderful characters, even minor ones such as little Mae Mobley, Elizabeth's neglected daughter, to Skeeter's mother Charlotte, to white-trash-married-into-wealth Celia Foote, Minny's new employer. Throughout the book, we see good and bad people, both black and white.

I could really relate to this book. When I was about eight years old, my family in Houston had a black maid for about five months who came once a week. At the time my mother had five children between the ages of six months and me, the oldest at eight, and she'd recently had abdominal surgery. Her father, my grandfather, hired Mariah to come and help with the laundry and ironing and other heavy jobs. Like the maids in this book, she wore a white uniform and hose, and rode the bus from across town to our neighborhood.

Author Kathryn Stockett grew up in Jackson. On her website, she writes, "Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person that raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too." Her book has generated some controversy, especially for the dialect used for the blacks, but it's also received praise and even comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird.

If this audiobook doesn't win at least one Audie Award (it's nominated for Fiction and for Distinguished Achievement in Production), I'll be surprised. Jenna Lamia is Skeeter, Bahni Turpin is Aibileen, and Octavia Spencer is Minny, while Cassandra Campbell narrates what happens at "The Benefit." These actresses are especially good at creating voices for the minor characters, such as Celia and Hilly, and even manage to do a good job at mimicking each other on the main characters.

Can't recommend this book enough, especially the audio version, and I can see why it's been at or near the top of the bestseller lists for a year now.

ETA 8/24/10 - The audiobook won both Audie Awards it was nominated for.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook was borrowed from my university library and has been returned.]

1 comment:

  1. I loved, loved, loved this book, too. One of my all-time favorites. Growing up 55 miles from Jackson (even if I was born 10 years after this story took place) I can really relate. I knew these characters (or, for sure, my mom did).