Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Narrators: Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell
Audiobook Length: 18 hours, 19 minutes
Genre: Historical Fiction
“Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.
Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.”
Thoughts: What more can be said about The Help than has already been said? It has received numerous accolades and much gushing since it was first released in 2009. It has also received negative press as well. Ironically, both are deserved. Over two years after its release date, one cannot ignore the criticisms because they are justified. However, the positives about the novel – the story itself, the characters, the historical events – lessen the impact of the criticism and still allow a reader to enjoy this fun and entertaining story.
The biggest fault of The Help is its perpetuation of the Mammy paradigm – African-Americans who are only too happy to care for and essentially raise the children and run the household of their wealthy, white owners/employers. Because this was written by a white woman of privilege, she cannot understand the dangers embraced by Aibileen, Minny and the other maids, or even the dangers they faced on a daily basis by virtue of their skin color in a historically racist community. To assume that she does understand their thoughts, their motivations, their true feelings on any subject, especially raising their employer’s children, is presumptuous and arrogant. Ms. Stockett, in an afterword to the novel, mentions how important her own relationship with her nanny was to her, but then she uses that to justify and stereotype all African-American nannies as eager and nurturing. While a reader is left with no doubt as to the genuine fondness Ms. Stockett has for her nanny, one is hard-pressed to make the leap to generalizing about all such situations. More importantly, no white woman will ever be able to truly comprehend what it was like to be an African-American in the South in the 1960s.
While The Help has received rave reviews for its print version, it truly shines on audio. Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell perfectly embody their characters, especially Octavia Spencer – which makes sense since she plays Minny in the movie version as well. The listener gets a true sense of each person’s character – her feelings, her mettle. This is something more than just the words on the page, and audio version is better for these additions. Similarly, the four distinct voices help the listener differentiate between the main characters, something which has been touted as problematic in the print version. The audio performances only enhance an already enchanting story.
The Help is fundamentally a great story. Of that there can be no doubt. All of the characters are sympathetic, entertaining, and simply enjoyable. However, the fact remains that a Caucasian woman is telling a story about a society and a culture about which she has no hope of ever truly understanding or empathizing. While Ms. Stockett stresses the importance of the relationship she had with her African-American housekeeper while growing up, she can never and will never know how her housekeeper felt. While she does not glorify housekeeping in the South during the 1960s, she does create relationships that she cannot know were ever genuine. Because of this, The Help remains difficult to embrace in its entirety. One can enjoy the story for its fictional elements and the emotions it creates, but a reader should remain keenly aware that this is just one person’s side of the story. If only Ms. Stockett would have thought to have a co-author. A story about the African-American experience in 1960s Mississippi written by an African-American woman would have made The Help truly amazing.
Acknowledgements: Mine. All mine.