Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

About a month ago I was looking for suggestions for what to listen to next - and then all of a sudden there are four books in my queue that I'm really excited to listen to. I downloaded "House Rules" and "The Help" at the same time, but when I got to my truck (I play most of my audiobooks on my Garmin Nuvi plugged into my truck's speakers) House Rules was first alphabetically. So now onto "The Help".

To say that this book was a delightful read is an understatement, the first 45 minutes or so had me scratching my head and debating whether or not to turn it off and move on down the queue to the next book. On the surface, the shallow society women of Jackson, "Missa-sippy" contrast with the colored help that serve them. Separate and not quite so equal, the stereotypical post-slavery southern culture and the social challenges of standing in any kind of middle ground. There was a sting of frankness in the writing: negro, negra, colored - all of which smacked me a bit, made me feel a little uncomfortable. I am of the generation of political correctness. I'm aware of racial inequalities of the past, offended by the concepts - and was truly uncomfortable as I was transported back there to a time when a proposal such as the "Home Health Sanitation" proposal was taken as a necessary evil. The "coloreds" are capable of cleaning the homes and bathrooms in which they work, cooking all of the meals for their employer's families and raising the white children as though they were their own, but at the same time there's the belief that "the coloreds" spread disease so they should have their own bathrooms in the garage.

The heavily southern accents and those same stereotypical characters faded into the background though as I got deeper into the story. Miss Stockett expertly peeled away the layers, humanizing the stories of the colored maids and the feminine lead character of Miss Skeeter. The story centers around the young college educated white Skeeter and an older colored maid Abilene (A.B.) who works for Skeeter's (Eugenia's) friend and fellow league member Elizabeth. Skeeter is both an aspiring writer and a forward thinker. She's unqualified for the editor positions she's applied for post-graduation, but receives support from an editor in NYC who recommends that she write something in order to demonstrate her capabilities. Skeeter temps as a household advice columnist (Miss Merna) for the Jackson Journal, but having never kept a house Skeeter has to draw on Abilene's domestic experience and advice for this column - which leads to the idea for a book about the life of a colored maid in Mississippi.

Interwoven in the process of writing this book are stories of courage, ignorance and adaptation. The sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King's march on Washington. A mere glimpse of the reality of what it was like to live as a southern "colored person" in the 1960s (the KKK does not play a big role in this story). High southern society on the edge of holding onto their traditions. The maids that submit their stories to Skeeter are brave - there are grave consequences to making waves and upsetting the status quo.

There are parts when I busted a gut laughing (the pie incident comes to mind) and there are sad parts - but throughout the whole book I was happy to have some long stretches in the car to enjoy the book in large sections - and every time I arrived at a destination I had to hang out in the car and listen just a little bit longer. The ending (though this is not a spoiler) wrapped up most of the ends I was really looking forward to resolving - but left enough hanging that I get to choose my own ending. This bothered me a little at the time, but even a day later I am still thinking about all the possibilities for some of the characters - I'm not sure any one ending would have satisfied those possibilities.

The narrators are superb. The southern drawl I initially found distracting (probably a product of my Northern New England ear) became a sweet song I could look forward to every time I got into the car. The characters were so deep and rich - even the secondary characters like Stewart and Cecelia. I wanted more! The voice of Miss Skeeter was particularly well-done and I've added a couple more of Jenna Lamia's work to my queue: "The Secret Life of Bees" and "Saving Ceecee Honeycutt".

I'm not sure if Kathryn's words were included at the end of the print book - There was a 10 minute piece at the end of the audiobook outlining the origins of the story. Her own childhood maid (that worked for her family for two generations), her escape from Mississippi that was both liberating and restrictive. Miss Stockett had many of the same pangs that made me a little queasy - only she had lived through them. She saw the truths that could otherwise be dismissed as part of the fiction. I walked away with a "Fried Green Tomatoes" impression that although this is a fictional story and the characters are products of that fiction...perhaps Miss Stockett is a bit like the Fried Green Tomatoes** character Idgie - the bee charmer. Skeeter is Miss Stockett's return to Jackson, Mississippi and the local girl "does good".

Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" is published by Penguin AudioBooks and narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer and Cassandra Campbell. "The Help" was released on January 28, 2009 and runs 18 hours 19 minutes. The Help is available from Audible.com

**Which reminds me - perhaps Fannie Flagg's novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe needs to get into my audiobook queue as well.

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