Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Narrators: Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell
Pages: 451 pages
Discs: 15 CDs, about 18 hours
Publisher/Date: Amy Einhorn Books, (Penguin Audio) c2009.
“I want to interview you. About what it’s like to work as a maid.” [...]
I turn and look at her. This what she been trying to ask me the past two weeks in Miss Leefolt kitchen. “You think Miss Leefolt gone agree to that? Me telling stories about her?”
Miss Skeeter’s eyes drop down some. “Well, no. I was thinking we wouldn’t tell her. I’ll have to make sure the other maids will agree to keep it secret, too.”
I scrunch up my forehead, just starting to get what she’s asking. “Other maids?”
“I was hoping to get four or five. To really show what it’s like to be a maid in Jackson.” [...]
I just stare at her. Is she crazy? “Did you hear about the colored boy this morning? One they beat with a tire iron for accidentally using the white bathroom?”
She just look at me, blink a little. “I know things are unstable but this is–”
“And my cousin Shinelle in Cauter County? They burn up her car cause she went down to the voting station.”
“No one’s ever written a book like this,” she say, finally whispering, finally starting to understand, I guess. (102-103)
Aibileen and Minny are best friends, comparing notes about the women they work for as maids in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. Things aren’t great, what with Hilly Holbrook pushing the issue of building a separate toilet in every home for the help to use, and Minny loosing her job and being black-listed due to accusations of theft. But what are they supposed to do to change that, since this is the way things are. Then 22-year-old Miss Skeeter returns from college in the hopes of securing a writing career, only to be granted a house-care column in the local paper. She’s told to write about something she knows and is passionate about, so she pairs up with Minny and Aibileen to write an examination of “domestic helpers” in the south. But can this controversial subject stay a secret from everyone else, especially from Miss Holbrook in high society south, where everybody’s business is her business?
This book was recommended to me by my supervisor. Because the wait at the time was shorter for the audiobook, I requested that instead of the printed copy. I am so glad for that happy accident. These four ladies do a superb job, and I could just picture Miss Skeeter, Minny and Aibileen striving to keep their secret safe from everyone else. There were lines delivered where I could picture the maids, hands on their hips, or heads cocked, or eyes downcast as was appropriate. Their pacing was appropriate, and I’m so glad I took the time to listen to it because I know I would have read this book too fast and missed some of the nuances and intricacies. The audiobook forced me to slow down and really listen to what was being said and absorb what it meant.
I feel like this could be in the teen section, and it could replace some of the required reading that is shoved down throats at the high school level. The writing was gorgeous, eloquent, and lyrical, drawing readers in with that slow southern drawl and keeping them hooked with tight dialogue and narration. The book would be ambling along, and then something shocking would happen that just sticks in your gut and stops your heart because you feel for these women. They have been brought to life.
These maids have attitude. Aibileen is the more patient and practical of the two. In addition to the house, Aibileen takes care of white children, moving on before the children reach double digits and they lose their unconditional love. Aibileen knows that once they hit double digits, they start learning how things really are in the world, instead of how they should be, and her heart breaks when the children learn the racism their parents and community encourage them to develop. The care these children receive in Aibileen’s hands is often better than what their own parents provide them, with the mother being apathetic at best about her daughter’s care and well-being.
In contrast, Minny seems especially suited to handle the elderly. Minny is the one who lands into trouble running off her mouth, but older people either don’t hear or don’t remember her sarcastic and abrasive quips. She’s the one I liked the most, and I kept picturing someone similar to Mammee from Gone with the Wind, regardless of her description. Each of these maids have their own hardships to overcome, with Aibileen suffering alone after her son passes away and Minny’s home is overrun by children and a husband. When revelations regarding her home life come to light, I grow even more impressed by her character.
Miss Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan evolves from this timid follower to a strong and opinionated woman, even if she doesn’t always voice them to other people. I was pleased with how her budding romantic relationship eventually ended up, although I was yelling at my radio at some parts because of the route she took to get there. What started off as a selfish endeavor to get writing experience becomes so much more. I seriously believe that in a different decade, Skeeter, Minny, and Aibileen could become life-long friends. Because of the year, and the environment of that time period, we’re not 100% sure that’s really going to happen. But it’s amazing what is accomplished between these three ladies in such a short time frame, and the effect they have on the community. They don’t change everyone, but they bring exposure to feelings that were, and still are, considered taboo.
To be perfectly honest, there were two very minor things that disappointed me. The first was that Skeeter’s ending is the only “happy” one. Oh sure, there is change in the wind for the two maids, and it obviously wouldn’t have been true to the time period if there weren’t any consequences, which the maids suffer from more acutely than Miss Skeeter. But the shift that happens to both Minny and Aibileen are heart-breaking, although portrayed with a note of optimism.
The second disappointment was that the “Afterword” by the author was not included in the audiobook. Kathryn Stockett provides perspective regarding her writing process and her first-hand experience with maids in Mississippi during that time period. It lends authenticity, and just as Skeeter’s editor Miss Stein encouraged Skeeter to include her story about her own maid in the fictionalized book, I feel Stockett’s reminiscence, however brief it is, should have been included in the audio.
Can you believe that the book is already being made into a movie? Here’s the Internet Movie Database entry and here’s an article that reveals a little bit about the collaboration between author and long time friends producer/director/writer Tate Taylor and Tate’s partner Brunson Green. And I’m absolutely thrilled to see Octavia Spencer, who I’m pretty sure was Minny in the audiobook, reprise her role for the movie. As I said before, she’s my favorite.