Friday, September 30, 2011

S.O.S. The Help

Kathryn Stockett's first novel, The Help, has bloomed into a mega-hit regardless of criticism for its historical inaccuracies and racial insensitivity.  One blog in particular, "A Critical Review of the novel The Help," is just loaded with interesting critical commentary. Nonetheless, many readers seem to adore it for the dialogue and punchy characters inhabiting a story the author thought would never be published.  In fact, according to Stockett, the manuscript was rejected by 60 literary agents before hitting pay dirt in 2009.  Since that time, The Help has enjoyed a great run on the book club circuit, has been released as a major motion picture, and will now be discussed this Saturday by our book group, Saturday Samplers.

The reaction to this particular book is all in one's point of view, but let's start with the book cover. The British book cover shows two black domestics caring for a white toddler in the 1950's or 60's.  The U.S. book cover consists of a muted, pretty illustration of three tiny birds set against a golden background.  What does this suggest?  I don't know, but clearly you are meant to feel good about picking up this novel and going with the flow.  If you read the first edition, would you notice that Medgar Evers's death was inaccurately attributed to a bludgeoning rather than a gunshot?  In several interviews, one with Barnes and Noble on their Web site, the author repeats this error.  Subsequent editions were corrected, but here is a screenshot of the mistake.

Stockett states in a Daily Mail UK interview that the story came about from her memories of her own family's black maid, Demetrie.  Demetrie worked for the author's Mississippi family for 32 years, raising Kathryn and her siblings, and accompanying the family on vacations.  Still, Demetrie was never allowed to use the family toilet, tub or dinnerware, and it never occurred to a young Stockett that this was unusual.  

In an NPR interview with Michele Norris, Kathryn Stockett states about her book, "It's fiction, but some of the facts and the settings and the backdrops - sure, that was Southern life.  Having a separate bathroom for the black domestic was just the way things were done.  Certainly, in my grandmother's time and when I was growing up, yeah, Demetrie's bathroom was on the side of the house.  It was a separate door.  Still, to this day, I've never been in that room."  Regardless, Stockett expresses her love for Demetrie and says, "Demetrie was treated like a queen, in my mind growing up, I should say."  As I said, it's all in your perspective.    

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