Library Director’s Notebook
Often friends tell me that they hesitate to buy me books for birthdays or holidays because they assume I’ve “read everything already”. Not true! Although I am a voracious reader, there’s no way I can read even the smallest percentage of all the worthwhile books out there. So I’m always happy when a friend gives me a book as a gift or loans me a copy to read.
Recently my friend and neighbor D'anna lent me a copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I’d heard about this book and knew it was one of those unlikely first novels by an unknown author that is catapulted to success primarily through word of mouth. It sounded like something I would enjoy, and it was on my ever growing list of “must get to someday” books; not urgent, but worth checking out when I had the time.
What made it a little different for me was that D'anna was lending me an audio book rather than a traditional printed book. Now I know that audio books are very popular in the library and that legions of fans absolutely love listening to audio books at home or in their cars. I was not one of these fans. The idea of listening to a book while driving, having to break off at an interesting part when I arrived at my destination, or fumbling to put in a new CD while trying to pay attention to the road did not much appeal to me.
But I had this 15 disc CD volume of The Help with a fervent declaration from my friend that I MUST listen to it. So what else could I do but pop in a CD one day on my way to work and start listening?
Immediately, I was hooked. The Help takes place in the Jim Crow South, in Mississippi in the early 1960’s. Segregation, no matter how brutal or demeaning, is a way of life, with few willing or able to challenge it. Many white families in Jackson Mississippi had maids to clean their houses and raise their children, and these maids were inevitably black women or “colored” as they were called.
The cruel irony of a black woman raising a white child who then goes on to embrace segregation and hire his or her own black servants is one of the driving themes of The Help. Simply put, this story is told through the eyes of three characters: Aibileen, a compassionate maid who has raised white children for 40 years; Minnie, a firebrand whose quick temper gets her fired from her servant jobs every year or so; and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a young college educated white woman who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.
Skeeter wants more than anything to live and work in New York City, away from her suffocating mother and the racist injustices of her small hometown. Following the promptings of a famous book editor, she decides to write a non-fiction book that will feature true stories about black maids working in Jackson, Mississippi.
The problem is that no maid would be crazy enough to take part in the project, knowing that if their identity were discovered, losing their jobs would be the least of their worries. Beatings, lynchings, and Jim Crow restrictions had been in place since the end of the Civil War, and there was no black family in Jackson that had not suffered as a result.
How Skeeter eventually befriends Aibileen and convinces her to help with the project is the center of this novel, with its superb regional dialogue, quirky humor,fearful suspense, and essential message of hope and courage. There is no “happily ever after ending”, but there is a realistic ending that honors those who have the courage to speak the truth and dare to live their authentic lives.
But the best thing about the audio version is the delight of hearing four talented actresses purr, drawl, whisper, and shout in the vibrant and authentic voices of the people of Jackson, Mississippi. Whether you listen to it or read it, The Help will keep you enthralled and eager for more.