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.)
- 22/20 for the Audio Book Challenge