The Help (Review)

November 6, 2010

Book cover for "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett.Title: The Help

Author: Kathryn Stockett

Narrators: Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell

Publication Year: 2009

Pages: 464 (audio length: 18 hours 19 seconds)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Source: Purchased audiobook from Audible.com

From the cover:

Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own. Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women — mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends — view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don’t.

This is probably my favourite read of the year so far.

The three narrators in The Help – Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny – each have their own distinct voices, but they blend together perfectly. They are all, in their own ways, completely fed up with the way things are going in their Mississippi town: fed up with the class differences, the employment insecurity, the violence, the attitudes … even with a “home help sanitation initiative” by the head of the Ladies’ League that aims to build separate “black” washrooms for the maids of white families.

Somehow, the three end up working together on a secret project: writing down the stories of black domestic workers – both the positive and the negative. All of this is juxtaposed over other stories, those of Minny and Aibileen in their workplaces, Skeeter’s disagreements with her friends and family, and the general racialized atmosphere of Jackson, Mississippi. There are complex storylines and nuances that I can’t even begin to describe, but which all combine to make The Help an absolutely fantastic read.

A word about the audio format of this book: it was pitch-perfect. Each chapter is narrated by a different character, and the audiobook had multiple narrators who each performed a specific character’s sections. Between the accents and the personal attitudes that were expressed by the narrators, I really found myself drawn into the story – I never wanted to turn it off. Even though it’s a fairly long audiobook, I finished it in about a week – much quicker than usual for that length – simply because I found myself spellbound and almost forced to make myself keep listening.

In the end, The Help isn’t just about civil rights: it’s about the complex relationships between women in both social and work relationships, and the even more complicated realities of living in Mississippi in the middle of institutionalized racism and the national integration debates. And really, Stockett does a beautiful job of portraying each of the characters and the conflicts in this book, really doing the topic justice for the people who lived through this time period and those of us coming later who want to learn from it.

(It does, however, raise some serious issues about white women taking over black women’s stories, white saviour complexes, and otherwise reinforces quite a lot of stereotypes. Personally, I think that the read is still worth it as long as you keep those things in mind.)

Rating:

10 Comments

  • Caitie F November 6, 2010 at 10:41 am

    I LOVED this book and am glad you did too! I thought the story and the writing and the characters were just so fantastic. Great review!

  • Katie November 6, 2010 at 11:55 am

    I loved this book, it was really fantastic. Usually when there are multiple narrators there is one character or story I am less interested in, and it takes me a while to jump between their different narratives, but I loved all three: Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny.

  • Helen Murdoch November 6, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    I really enjoyed this book! It didn’t occur to me to listen to it, but it sounds wonderful with the different narrators; how clever!

  • Amy November 6, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    I have to admit that I haven’t been too interested in reading this book. It sounds good, but I don’t know what it is that is keeping me away!

  • nat @book, line, and sinker November 7, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    i really loved this book and need to reread it to see if i can use it in my high school english class–has to be clean! 🙂 did you know there’s a movie coming out in 2011 based on the book?

    • Carina November 7, 2010 at 7:30 pm

      I did not! That’s freaking awesome! I’m pretty sure it would be okay for teaching, but not entirely, since I wasn’t thinking about that while reading.

  • Ellen November 9, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    Great post! This is my first time at your site and I’m glad I stumbled onto it. This is a book that has been sort of halfway on my radar (you know, popping up in amazon recommendations, in conversation, sometimes seeing a review and remembering that it exists) and I think your review is finally going to push me over the edge and get to read it. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts!

    • Carina November 13, 2010 at 9:03 pm

      Great! I really did love it.

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