Book Talk: The Help

8:30:00 PM

I probably looked like a crazy person when I was listening to this book during my commute, because I was grinning and laughing my way through the whole thing. Although I had heard fantastic things about The Help, I had never made it a priority on my TBR list - that is, until I started borrowing audiobooks (through OverDrive, my absolute favorite app) and found this one was available.

I fell head over heels for each of the women in this book, in part because of the women who gave such incredible voices to each of them: Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell. I don't have a lot of experience with voice acted audiobooks, but this one completely blew me away. The narrators brought to life the accents and dialects of the old south in a way that added to the story rather than distracting from it.

The novel itself felt beautifully written, with a pace that matched the time in which it was set (in the best way possible). I loved getting a glimpse into the lives of both the wealthy white women and the hard working African American women of 1960's Jackson, Mississippi; women whose lives intersected every day, but who lived in two completely different worlds.

Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is the daughter of a wealthy cotton farmer, and wants more than anything to become a writer. Her wry insights into the privileged world she lives in and snarky interactions with other characters were some of the highlights of her chapters for me. Skeeter wants nothing more than to escape her confining southern town, where people of color are expected to use a separate bathroom and women of good breeding go to college to become wives, not writers. In a lot of ways, Skeeter was the character that resonated with me most, because she is a recent college graduate who yearns to get some distance from her old life and the expectations of the people around her. Her relationship with her mother, fraught on both sides with lies, omissions, and disappointed hopes, evolves beautifully over the course of Skeeter's journey, and her experiences with Aibileen, Minny, and the other maids help her to grow into her own and fight for what she wants.

Although Skeeter is the character I connected with most, the real star of The Help is Aibileen. The book jacket describes Aibileen as regal, and I truly can't think of a better word to describe her. With wisdom, humor, and deep sadness, Aibileen eloquently describes her lifetime of experience - good, bad, and ugly - raising other people's children while mourning the death of her own. When Skeeter comes to Aibileen and asks her if she ever wishes things could change, Aibileen begins to reveal feelings she has suppressed her entire life in order to survive, including the "bitter seed" she says was planted in her when her son was killed. Aibileen is a beautifully written character, someone you want to be your mother, your teacher, and your best friend. I feel like a better person for having met her. The way that she cares for Mae Mobley, the child of her employers, leaves me heartbroken. And I finally discovered that the quote that I had seen several times actually comes from her: "You is kind. You is smart. You is important." Her mantra to the often neglected child brought me to tears on several occasions. Aibileen's efforts to impart love, kindness, and open-mindedness into Mae Mobley before she grows old enough to become racist were some of the most powerful and grounding moments of the book.

Aibileen's best friend Minny is her opposite in every way. Loud, smart-mouthed, and perpetually in trouble with her employers, Minny has spent her whole life unsuccessfully trying to hide her anger and resentment at her life and it's strict boundaries, and it usually results in her getting fired. When people in town start stirring up a discussion about race, Skeeter decides she wants to write an exposé about the maids of Jackson. The women refuse, fearing for their lives, until one day, a series of events forces them to consider the consequences of never speaking up or revealing the truth.

I can't wait to see the movie a) because I love Emma Stone, and b) because I know Kathryn Stockett based the character of Minny off Octavia Spencer, who plays her in the movie. It's always amazing to me to see an author's vision come to life, and it seems like Stockett had a hand both in the casting and in the writing and directing of the film, which usually leads to a great adaptation. This novel was beautiful, funny, smart, and heartbreaking all at once, and while I feel like the absolute last person to have gotten around to reading this book, I will definitely recommend it to anyone I know who hasn't read it yet.

Have YOU read The Help? If you have, tell me your thoughts. If you haven't, well, what are you waiting for??

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