Every once in a while an “it” novel turns up that strikes a chord, fires up the reading groups, and nestles high up on the bestseller list for a good long time: a recent example was Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES, far better loved in the reading than in the watching. Since last summer, the “it” book — to the tune of nearly two million copies — has been THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. It’s set in Jackson, Mississippi from 1962 to about 1965. I happened to live there during that time, so I read THE HELP with particular interest, if belately. On my trip to Jackson last month, the first time I’d been down there since THE HELP’s publication, everybody wanted to talk about it, but I hadn’t yet had the pleasure.
Most people were excited about the book and its notoriety. It is the story of black domestics in Jackson, told from their point of view – a set of truths that many people, including the author herself, only noticed peripherally at the time. I’d moved to Jackson in 1962 from Virginia, hardly an “enlightened” place – after all, our Founding Fathers were slaveowners – but, at only twelve, I had never before seen such a relationship: in certain families, a domestic was so everyday-intimate that she actually helped raise the children. The point of view wasn’t exactly master/slave, but definitely dominant/subservient. Aside from this ipso facto state of superiority, I never saw or heard anyone take advantage of or act cruelly to “the help.” But then, I didn’t travel in the circles where everybody has help. This book takes you there.
Reading the book, my friends in Jackson luxuriated in the little details: place names, weather, Southern idioms. And the first gentle rap from them was usually that the author got too much of this easily-checked stuff wrong. She misspells the name of Lanier High School. The city’s beloved Woodie Assaf, America’s longest-serving TV weatherman, wasn’t on channel 12 (Jackson’s CBS affiliate), but channel 3 (WLBT, the NBC affiliate, whose call letters she gets right later in the book). Millsaps College, my alma mater, didn’t have a postgraduate program in 1962. It’s puzzling why Ms. Stockett employs a fictional newspaper, the “Jackson Journal,” when everything else is quoted from life. But these are small specks unrecognizable to anyone outside Jackson, just as it takes a New Yorker to notice that the New York Times didn’t have a “Living” section back then. Far more important is the story, and it’s quite arresting. As in the book within this book, you see the help through the help’s eyes, trained on the ladies who hire them. Some even inspire surprising fondness.
Lots of people I talked to were crazy for the book, but there was some opposition. One friend huffed, “She can’t write!” With this I must disagree. Ms. Stockett makes an already hard job even harder by writing in first person in three distinct voices: a white college graduate and would-be writer; a feisty maid who talks back too much; and, most bravely and impressively, a woman who has spent her life raising white children and who speaks in heavy, beautifully-observed dialect (on a hot day, a character “kind a itch around in her clothes a second”). The writer, desperate to escape cloying Jackson society, sets out to secretly gather the anonymous stories of the city’s “help,” both good and bad, into a book for Harper & Row in New York. And don’t forget the period: the Freedom Riders have barely left their buses, the murders of Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy march by solemnly in the background, and Jim Crow is the law of the land. If you were there, you remember it like a dream. If you weren’t, it’s almost beyond belief.
There used to be a saying down there: “The northerner loves the race and hates the individual. The southerner hates the race and loves the individual.” I suppose whatever truth there may be in that theorem – along with the sad intransigence of those who cannot tolerate even the notion of change – is the kernel which Kathryn Stockett digs for here, the essence of what she has tried to say after five long years of effort. This is obviously a very personal novel, which will make her next one even more important. Is there any more gas in the tank? She’ll certainly have everyone’s attention. Meanwhile, we await the film version, to be produced by Chris Columbus and directed by Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of the novelist who optioned THE HELP before it was published. Last I heard, the director of the Mississippi Film Commission, my friend Ward Emling, was working to get the picture shot in Mississippi.* Imagine shooting anywhere else! But as all film commissioners know, it’s not about verisimilitude these days: it’s about tax breaks.
One thing I resent in those from outside the South is a certain patronizing regard for the region’s traditions, even the less flattering ones. I’m sure there are waves of haughty indignation rising from reading groups all over the country as they discover the separate lives of the races in the pre-civil rights era. But as Boston’s school-busing parents learned for themselves not even ten years later, there’s plenty of prejudice to go around. In an afterword, the author calls native Mississippians “a wary, defensive bunch. We are full of pride and shame, but mostly pride.” She also details the mischievous glee with which she could debunk anyone in New York asking “Where are you from?” and hearing “Mississippi”: depending on the reaction, she can cite either Jackson’s harrowing crime rate or the state’s oversized contributions to our culture. So, to the same point, how does this privileged white girl presume to tell us what it’s like to work in a home where you can’t even use the inside bathrooms; where you can be fired, or even jailed, just on the whim of a pompous matron; where there is no recourse, none, for the most outrageous abuse? It’s simple. She can’t. She can only give us her own perspective. But it’s the closest we’ll get until the real thing comes along.
*5/13/10: Friends in Mississippi tell me that this morning’s Jackson paper reports they will begin shooting in Greenwood, Mississippi in July. Close enough. Congratulations, Ward.
4/24/11: THE HELP is released in trade paperback and immediately hits #1 on the Times trade fiction list, after spending more than two years on the hardcover fiction list. (It hit on 3/1/09.) The forthcoming film adaptation is one of the most eagerly anticipated pictures of the summer.
9/9/11: And the film delivered — one of the big hits of the summer, and pretty much dominant from mid-August to mid-September. There was still some flick-crit carping over the white girl writing about blacks, and the untested-director childhood friend blah blah, but my friends who have seen it say it sings.
9/12/11: For anyone planning to visit Jackson — a lovely and historic town — my friend Linda Mann at the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau points out that you can take an auto-directed HELP tour through the beautiful Belhaven neighborhood and beyond. Here’s the info.