The Doomsday Book and The Help

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Help by Kathryn Stockett have only two things in common.  One is that I finished them both the same week and the second is that they are both about different times in history that witnessed amazing social upheaval.  

The Doomsday Book is, in the tradition of Connie Willis, a look at the possibilities of time travel.  Set simultaneously in the year 2054 and 1348, Oxford history student, Kivrin, plans to be dropped by the university’s time machine to Christmas time, 1320.  However, the tech responsible for the drop succumbs to a modern-day epidemic and mistakenly places her in the middle of the Black Death in 1348. 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the 21st century historians are having their own problems.  A flu epidemic – the kind that the CDC has been warning us about for years- is ravaging London.  Mr. Dunworthy, Kivrin’s professor and the only one who knows how to go back in time and retrieve her, is caring for sick colleagues, and trying desperately to figure out how to get her home.

Can Kivrin stop the Black Plague from killing the people who she has grown to love so much?  Can Mr. Dunworthy swoop in and extract Kivrin from her doomed trip?  You’ll have to read the book to find out. 

In the meantime I will say that it’s one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read and I’ll be thinking about the wonderful characters and plot twists and turns for some time.  I truly felt like I was in the Middle Ages with Kivrin, experiencing the unforgettable loss and hopelessness that those who were battling the Black Death must have surely felt.  

The Help, set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, is a glimpse into a period of great change and social chaos but in a much different way.

It’s 1963 in Mississippi and the Civil Rights Movement is taking shape in dramatic ways.   Martin Luther King is planning his March on Washington and NAACP leader Medgar Evers is murdered outside of his home.  During this time of unrest and change, Junior League member and recent Old Miss graduate Skeeter Phelan is secretly writing a book. 

Not just any book, mind you.  This book is an anonymously written piece of non-fiction featuring interviews from over 20 black maids living in Jackson.  And not just any interviews.  These were tell-all pieces regarding the white women for which they worked.  Some had nice employers who treated them fairly and with kindness and others worked for women straight out of a nightmare. 

They were all risking their lives and livelihoods to talk about what it was like to be black in the 1960’s south.  This was a place where there were few opportunities and danger was around every corner if you tried to change the system.

I think that the most amazing thing about this book was the cast that performed the audiobook version.  They were wonderful, capturing every voice and feeling.  They truly developed each character and there were times that I swore I knew all of them.  

Speaking of character development, I wish that Stockett had developed a few of her characters more fully.  “Miss Hilly”, most definitely one of the worst of the white women, only needed a broom and to scream, “I’ll get you my pretty!” to complete her picture.  She was two-dimensional and cartoonish.  Yet many of the other characters were so fully developed and their narrative and actions were so well written that they honestly seemed to be alive.

Despite this, I really enjoyed this book.  If you like audiobooks, give it a try – it’s definitely worth a listen.

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