The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Aibileen is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, raising her seventeenth white child. She's always taken orders quietly, but lately it leaves her with a bitterness she can no longer bite back. Her friend Minny had certainly never held her tongue, or held onto a job for very long, but now she's working for a newcomer with secrets that leave her speechless. And white socialite Skeeter has just returned from college with ambition and a degree, but, to her mother's lament, no husband. Normally Skeeter would find solace in Constantine, the beloved maid who raised her, but Constantine has inexplicably disappeared.
Together, these seemingly different women join to write, in secret, a tell-all book about what it's really like to work as a black maid in the white homes of the South. Despite the terrible risks they will have to take, and the boundaries they will have to cross, these three women unite with one intention: hope for a better day.
I don't know where to start.
I loved everything about The Help. Reading it feels like time-travelling back to Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1962 - 1964. Stockett's attention to detail is impressive, especially when it comes to the interactions between characters. The subtleties in the way Hilly, Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny talk to each other showcase the racial tensions of the early 1960s vividly. Stockett doesn't gloss over her subject. She tells the good, the bad, and the ugly - which is entirely the point of The Help. She doesn't try to cast the white women in a positive light, just an accurate one. The relationships between the maids and their employers; the maids and the children they take care of; and the maids and Skeeter are complicated - sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter.
All of the characters are complicated and dynamic, too. The three narrators are easy to sympathize with for a plethora of reasons. Their stories are very different, but each one is full of heartbreak, humor, and courage. Each woman has a distinctive voice and a lot of personality. Stockett presents their stories as sympathetic but not pitiful; the narrators don't complain about their situation, they just tell the truth of it. I especially love that Skeeter isn't portrayed as a saint. She doesn't escape the influence of racism, and it's obvious that she has to go back on what she was taught and overcome it. It was touching, to see her making that effort.
A teacher once told me that the reason we learn about history is so that we don't make the same mistakes out ancestors did. Jim Crow is a mistake I hope we never repeat. Reading about the lives of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter was like stepping into a different world for me, but many of its lessons are still relevant today. The Help is fiction, but it isn't false, and that's what makes it so important. NPR called it "one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird," and I have to agree. The Help is a heartfelt, wonderfully written book that leaves an impression even after the final page has been turned.
The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman
In Sunderland, England, a city quarantined by the cholera epidemic of 1831, a defiant, fifteen-year old beauty in an elegant blue dress makes her way between shadow and lamp light. A potter’s assistant by day and dress lodger by night, Gustine sells herself for necessity in a rented gown, scrimping to feed and protect her only love: her fragile baby boy.
She holds a glimmer of hope after meeting Dr. Henry Chiver, a prisoner of his own dark past. But in a world where suspicion of medicine runs rampant like a fever, these two lost souls will become irrevocably linked, as each crosses lines between rich and destitute, decorum and abandon, damnation and salvation.
This tale is masterfully told, with a clear, tender voice like no other. The dismal, disease-ridden streets, graveyards, and hovels of Sunderland will take shape around you. Holman’s prose is poetic yet disturbing, fleshing out the raw truth of 1831 Sunderland.
Holman doesn’t dance around the subjects of dress lodging, dissection, disease, and grave robbing, but rather plunges into their heart with a blunt voice. The heroine, young Gustine, will capture your interest and your heart. The wide, vivid cast of characters in The Dress Lodger riot from the pages; Holman gives the reader reason to pity, loathe, and love them by turns.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
Eddie is a wounded war veteran, an old man who has lived, in his mind, an uninspired life. His job is fixing rides at a seaside amusement park. On his 83rd birthday, a tragic accident kills him as he tries to save a little girl from a falling cart. He awakes in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is not a destination, but an answer.
In heaven, five people explain your life to you. Some you knew, others may have been strangers. One by one, from childhood to soldier to old age, Eddie’s five people revisit their connections to him on earth, illuminating the mysteries of his “meaningless” life, and revealing the haunting secret behind the eternal question: “Why was I here?”
I was surprised at how much I liked this book. Because of the title, I figured it would be a book about God or something, but it wasn’t. Albom manages to talk about heaven and dying (and yes, a few mentions of God) without making his story into a Religion Book.
I loved how intricate and interwoven Eddie’s story was with the others’. The last person he met in heaven nearly had me crying. This book was very well done and a fascinating story about an “unimportant” man, one that will make you question the impact you've had on others.
Room by Emma Donoghue
To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.
Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him.
This is one of the most amazing, heartbreaking, terrifying, thought-provoking books I have ever read. My heart ached for Ma and her plight and for Jack, who didn’t fully understand. Donoghue perfectly captures a chid’s innocence and a mother’s devotion. I could barely breathe through the climax of the book. I am blown away by how descriptive Donoghue was, using a five-year-old’s language. Every bit of this story was amazing to me, from the first page to the last. A must-read.
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.