Thursday, January 20, 2011

"The Help" By Kathryn Stockett

Published: 2009, debut novel
Read as audiobook: 2011
Genre: historical fiction
Setting: Jackson, Mississippi in early 1960's, Civil Rights
Rating: 5
Review: Prairie Library complete with pictures taken with the author!  Sarah Reads Too Much

Went to the library to get a couple of audiobooks for the trip to the Cape/Vermont over Xmas. Picked this up as it was highly recommended by my sister-in-law. My daughter and I began listening to it while driving from the Cape to Vermont. We smiled, chuckled and laughed out loud as the miles flew by. Once home, I continued to listen on an old CD walkman while working on my cross stitch project. Went through quite a few batteries but thoroughly enjoyed. The actors were brilliant.

Thoughts while listening:
  • written in three distinct POV - Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. Different races, backgrounds, temperaments, ages. How did the author do it? She had to "hear" each character very clearly in order to be as distinct as they were.
  • wow - such racism/prejudice only 50 short years ago. At that time, it was probably unimaginable to think that a black man could be POTUS, and here we are. The next barrier is having a woman as President.
  • There is one scene, the Benefit, that was told in the third person. This struck me as odd. I was conditioned to listen for either A, M or S's voice to continue the story. So really stood out when a third person began narrating.
  • Historical references: JFK's assassination and MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech.
  • Mysteries throughout the story that pull the reader in. What happened to Constantine? What's up with Miss Celia? What is wrong with Skeeter's mother? What will happen to Skeeter and Stuart? Will anyone find out about "the stories?" And if they do, what will happen?
I began reading Maya Angelou's memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at the same time. Her account of being a black girl in the South (Stamp, Arkansas), St. Louis and California during the 30's and 40's - so a few decades before time depicted in The Help. But similar enough.

Several days after finishing the book, I wrote about the characters in my journal. This is very unusual as typically, I cannot remember much after I am done. Why is this? Maybe it is because I spent 15 hours hearing actors make the characters come alive. Maybe "hearing" the words as opposed to "seeing" them enabled them to "stick" to my consciousness. Maybe there is a deeper penetration when listening vs. hearing. Maybe it is because I am listening to every single word as opposed to when I am reading and skipping words, sentences and even paragraphs. Maybe because when I am listening, I am totally engrossed in the story. Undistracted. I cannot hear anything else. And when I read, it is more like I am floating on top of the story - reading, skimming or skipping words. Interesting .

Character Study
All protagonists were likable and the villain was not.

Aibileen - gentle, kind. Loves kids. Sad from losing her own son. She is educated - a writer. Writes her prayers out. Know as a "prayer warrior". Sees people for who they are. Courageous in being the first to share her story. Selfless - wanted Skeeter to take the job in NYC.

Minny - loud, brash, brutally honest. Unbridled tongue - sassy. She tries to exert self-control but it is hard. Unsuccessful which has cost her jobs. A loyal friend. Strong in all areas except with her husband. An enabler. Allows Leroy to abuse her. What she did to Miss Hilly (pie) - gumption!

Skeeter - intelligent. A college grad. A writer. Unconventional Southern young woman. Courageous. Love and concern for the maids who are helping her. Color-blind.

Hilly - epitome of "Christian white woman" who is thoroughly prejudiced and extremely racist - in the name of Christianity. Justifies her actions. Vindictive. Amoral. Completely blinded by her prejudice which drives her agenda. Manipulative and cruel. Has no thought about sending a maids to jail on trumped up charges. Lies to get her way. I found absolutely nothing to like about her.

Miss Celia - "powhitetrash". Not much higher than blacks on the social ladder. Risks her life to save Minny. Trying desperately to be something she is not: good cook, housekeeper, Junior League member, genteel Southern wife. She cannot get pregnant. Gruesome miscarriage scene. Unforgettable Benefit scene. Terribly unhappy because of how others look and treat her. But she does not have the prejudices of Hilly. She is a kind (but dumb) person. She and Skeeter could've been friends - a bit awkwardly but could have. I was waiting for her to maybe have a bigger role in the book, but that never happened.

Elizabeth - kowtows to Hilly. Has H on a pedestal. Insecure. A horrible mother - uncaring and unsympathetic to her daughter. But this is how her mother treated her, so the apple did not fall far from the tree. Dumb - read the book but didn't get that one of the women was herself. Blinded. No self-reflection. Very shallow and superficial.

Skeeter's mother - terribly hard and critical of Skeeter. Her hair, her clothes, the non-dating life, her job, etc. etc. Typical Southern wife and mother with prejudice and racism running deep. She does the unimaginable - drives Constantine away by demanding that her long-lost daughter, who is so light she can pass for being white, leaves the area. This girl embarrassed her terribly at a DAR meeting and years later, as she is recounting the story to Skeeter, she is still indignant.

Long ago, there was a TV series called Twilight Zone. One episode was about a deeply racist white man going to sleep. When he woke up, he was black. I wish this could happen to Hilly.

  • Years ago, I used to write out my prayers. Since reading this book, I've written one prayer. Maybe I should try and do this more.
  • When reading, I should slow myself down and consciously read each word. Or read aloud. Think about being engrossed in the words and the story, letting them settle and penetrate instead of reading quickly and superficially.
  • Read Maya Angelou's Collected Autobiography.

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