Saturday, June 26, 2010
Posted by JaneGS
I finished The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, last week, and at a friend's insistence, I listened to the audio version. I can heartily recommend both the book and the audio version--I really liked the different voices for the different narrators, although my family did inform me that I was starting to talk in a southern accent as I neared the end of the book. Usually I only listen to audio books in the car, but this book was so compelling and I wanted to know what happened so badly, that I loaded up my iphone with the book and just plugged in while I was making dinner, watering plants, and generally futzing around the house. I even used my precious reading time to listen instead of read!
For those of you who haven't heard the basic story line, Skeeter Phelan (aka Eugenia), a 23-year old white woman who has moved back to her parents' cotton farm (aka plantation) in Jackson, Mississippi after failing to get her MRS degree from Ole Miss (aka University of Mississippi), though she did get a degree in journalism, wants to be a writer and hits upon the notion of writing a book based on the true stories of the town's African-American maids (i.e., what is it like to work for a white family in Jackson, MS). Since the story is set in the early 1960's, right when Civil Rights was really starting to get going in the South, Skeeter and the maids she eventually convinces to talk to her are running a huge risk--not only are their jobs at risk but their physical safety, even their lives, are in danger.
Stockett does an absolutely fantastic job of sustaining tension throughout the novel, and she gives each of her main characters, who take turns with the narration, something very real that they can win by their courageous acts or lose if their anonymity is compromised. She also makes each of these women--Skeeter, Abileen, and Minnie--enormously appealing in very different ways. And to her credit, even the villains of the story, in particular, Skeeter's former best friend, Miss Hilly, are not without shades of gray. For me, the overriding theme of the novel is that everyone has their side of the story. Enabling people to find their voice and tell their story proves once again the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword.
It is a women's story, though, with the only men being Skeeter's sometime boyfriend, Stuart Whitworth, her quiet and kind father, Minnie's abusive husband, and the shadowy, mostly absent husbands of the white families that the maids serve. I loved how it ended, with the notion that the white women who ostracized Skeeter were ultimately trapped in sad, narrow lives that they couldn't change because of their blinding prejudices, and the maids, who lived in fear and near poverty, were able to break away and forge new lives and new beginnings because of their courage and willingness to sacrifice a lot in order to truly help each other.
I enjoyed this book immensely--I've been thinking about it for days--and I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing the movie that is now in the works. I hope it gets on the curriculum at high schools all over the U.S. It would be perfect in both English classes and American history classes.