The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 6, 2009

Book review: Fiction titles with historical bent make fascinating reads

"The Help"

By Kathryn Stockett

Adult fiction?

In 1962, 22-year-old Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns home to Jackson, Miss., after graduating from Ole Miss only to find that her mother refuses to be sated because she lacks a boyfriend and, more importantly, an engagement ring. On top of that, she no longer fits in with her childhood friends Hilly and Elizabeth, despite her best efforts to participate in their weekly bridge game and edit the Junior League newsletter.

Ordinarily she would solicit comfort and wisdom from her childhood maid, Constantine, but she disappeared while Skeeter was in her final semester at Ole Miss and no one will tell her what transpired.

Despite Skeeter’s desire to satisfy everyone, she must admit that her life is flawed. After receiving some advice from an editor in New York City, she endeavors to write a book about the lives of African-American maids in Jackson.

In researching the book, she secretly collaborates with two maids: Aibileen, a strong-willed maid who is raising her 17th white child and is doing her best to hold it together since her son died in a tragic workplace accident, and Minny, a sassy, to-die-for cook, who cannot hold a job because she is always running off at the mouth to her white employers.

The three seemingly different women have no idea how their courageous partnership will alter their lives and their community.

Kathryn Stockett is an extraordinary storyteller whose debut novel begs to be opened. Through the voices of Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny, readers will find themselves transported to the segregated South during the beginning stages of the civil rights movement and will be turning pages long into the night. Stockett’s theme may be familiar, but thanks to her commendable job of bringing history and characters to life, this book is a standout.

"Sarah’s Key"

By Tatiana de Rosnay

Adult fiction

In 1942, when the French police come to arrest 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski’s family, she locks her 4-year-old brother Michael in a secret cupboard thinking that he will be safe.

Little does she know that the French police are collaborating with the Nazis and that she, her parents and thousands of Jewish families are going to be detained in the Vélodrome d’Hiver for days without food, water or medical attention. Later, they will be transported to concentration camps outside Paris.

Sixty years later, 45-year-old American journalist Julia Jarmond is assigned a magazine article about the commemoration of the anniversary. Though she has lived in France for nearly 25 years, has a French husband and an 11-year-old daughter, she is unfamiliar with the event.

She is appalled at her own ignorance and immediately begins researching the event. In her research, she makes a discovery that causes her to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

In this fictionalized account of an event that is virtually unknown to Americans, author Tatiana De Rosnay does an extraordinary job captivating the reader. Her use of alternating chapters, told from Julia’s and Sarah’s viewpoints, is brilliant and makes this a hard book to stop reading.

Jeana Gockley is the children’s librarian at Joplin Public Library.