Debut novelist takes on the South's troubled past
Stereotypes seem almost inevitable when someone tries to portray the relationships that existed 50 years ago between black people and white people in the South. Usually they swing from the extremes of Mississippi Burning to Driving Miss Daisy. So it’s a bit surprising—and refreshing—that Kathryn Stockett, who wasn’t born until years after that time, manages to capture something close to reality while avoiding most of the pitfalls in her first novel, The Help. Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962, The Help is told through three voices: Aibileen, an older black woman who has been taking care of white families since she was 13; Minny, a younger black woman who finds it difficult to curb her sharp tongue around her white employers; and Skeeter, a privileged white girl fresh out of college, who wants more from life than marriage to the first presentable young man her mother can produce.
Stockett, a Mississippi native who now lives in Atlanta with her husband and five-year-old daughter, says the idea of writing the book first came to her as an antidote to homesickness. She was working for a magazine consulting firm in New York City, but frequently found her thoughts turning to the South and to Demetrie, the black woman who cared for Stockett when she was growing up. Finally she asked her bosses if she could take a month off to write about these memories. She laughs when she remembers the response.
“They said, ‘You’re not in Mississippi anymore, Kitty.’ They thought that people in Mississippi were a little more leisurely about jobs. I said, no, really, I don’t want to be paid. I just want to take a month off because I want to hunker down and write this story. And something happened—it was so nurturing and wonderful to hear Demetrie’s voice again. I think that’s really what drew me to the story, to hear her talking in my head 15 years after she had died.”
Although Stockett wasn’t born until 1969, seven years after the events depicted in her book, she said she not only had a wealth of information provided by the stories Demetrie had told her, but also from her parents and her 98-year-old grandfather.
“Demetrie worked for my grandmother and my grandfather, starting in the mid-50s, and my grandfather has the most remarkable memory. He doesn’t just remember details, he remembers dates. He remembers the temperature on that day; he’s kind of a savant that way. So I had a pretty good research tool right there in the living room with me.”
Stockett re-creates an environment that will be all too familiar to the people who lived through it: a time when “colored” people could cook food for white folks, but couldn’t sit down and eat with them. When a colored maid could wash the family’s dishes, but had to eat from her own plate because of the “germs” she might pass to her employers.
And heaven forbid that the black maid use the same bathroom as her white “family”! This is the event that opens the novel and that first opens Skeeter’s eyes to the injustice of this terribly skewed system. After listening to her friend, Hilly, present her plans for a “Home Help Sanitation Initiative” to their bridge group, Skeeter follows Aibileen, the maid, into the kitchen.
“Do you ever wish you could . . . change things?” [Skeeter] asks. And I can’t help myself. I look at her head on. Cause that’s one a the stupidest questions I ever heard. She got a confused, disgusted look on her face, like she done salted her coffee instead a sugared it. I turn back to my washing, so she don’t see me rolling my eyes. “Oh no, ma’am, everthing’s fine.
Skeeter may have had her consciousness raised a tiny bit, but it takes a long while before she can treat Aibileen as a person, rather than a colored person. Likewise, it takes a lot for Aibileen to learn to trust Skeeter. A key element of the book is Stockett’s use of language. The rhythms of the dialect are nearly flawless, due in no small part to the author’s refusal to use the “gonna,” “cain’t,” “sho-nuff,” spellings too many writers fall back on when trying to establish a sense of regionalism. Stockett credits this to her creative writing teacher at the University of Alabama.“She taught me a lot of things, but she taught me one rule and that was, as long as it’s a word in the dictionary, you can use it. So I had to be really creative in figuring out how to write idiom. As long as it didn’t set off the Spell-Checker, that was the rule—I could use it.”
Not all of the characters discriminated against in Stockett’s novel are black. Celia Foote is a white girl from the wrong side of the tracks who married well, but can’t break the barrier her background presents. Stockett felt she was important to the story, too.
“Just because you’re white and good looking and rich doesn’t mean you’re going to walk in the door of the Junior League,” she says. “I felt like if I was going to be talking about Southern women, I couldn’t leave out the fact that sometimes, they love to snub their own kind.”
While it was a daunting task to tackle stereotypes and successfully make her characters human, it took even more courage to write about this time and these issues as a white woman—something Stockett said she never forgot.
“You have to be careful what you say and how you say it, because people are really sensitive about this. We loved them [the black household workers] and they were part of our family but we didn’t ask them to sit down at the table with us. That just wasn’t done. Not that they were dying to sit down with us anyway, but there was a pretty well defined set of rules. And you knew what the rules were and you knew if you were breaking them.”
Breaking rules forms the core of The Help, an idea summarized in what Stockett says is her favorite sentence of her first novel: “Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, ‘We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.’ ”
Rebecca Bain writes from her home in Nashville.