The Help by Kathryn Stockett has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for more than a year and has been dubbed the can’t-miss read of the summer for folks not just in the south, not even just in the States, but for readers young and old across the world. For that reason, we’ve chosen The Help as our July Read of the Month. After all, with those sales figures, we can’t possibly discuss contemporary southern literature without talking about Kathryn Stockett.
At first, you may think The Help is just another book about blacks and whites on the cusp of the civil rights era in Mississippi. On one level, that’s right. But, if that’s all it was about, it wouldn’t resonate with so many people of so many ages from so many different cultural and geographical backgrounds.
The brilliance of this book is that by giving voice to the various social classes of segregated Jackson, Stockett reveals some painful universal truths about the human race as a whole. What Stockett may have realized after leaving Jackson is that wherever you go, whatever you do, it’s easy to find someone who believes at his core, that he is better than another person. That sense of superiority, whether it roots from having a certain piece of land, money, family name, religion, or skin color, has led to barbaric behaviors since the beginning of time.
What Stockett has done is capture this sinister side of human nature by creating colorful, often humorous scenes from inside the homes of Mississippi’s elitists and their help.
When the book first launched, I attended Stockett’s book signing at Off Square Books in Oxford, Miss.
“How many of you were raised by a black woman?” Stockett asked the capacity crowd of white faces. Nearly every hand went up, filling the space with white arms and white fingers and maybe even white guilt.
Every hand was raised, except mine and about two or three others. We couldn’t directly relate to the world of white supremacy that Stockett exposed, but that didn’t mean we hadn’t stood witness to it, scratching our heads at church on Sunday or in the Ole Miss stadium on Saturday night and wondering how much things had really changed. It was apparent right there in that room, where a white woman had penned a novel about blacks and whites. Where all the faces were white. All but one.
Accompanying Stockett that night was her friend and actor, Octavia Spencer, who had already signed to portray Minny in the big screen version of The Help. The real treat of the evening was hearing Spencer bring Minny’s character to life with such passion and perfection. When Spencer spoke the words on the page, it was clear that Stockett got it right.
Throughout the book, the dialog is coated with old south dialect that may seem a little over-the-top to readers who don’t reside in the south. Some have criticized Stockett’s use of that dialect as a racist act. But when you live here, and you hear it, and you’ve observed the language evolve for generations, you know that Stockett is on point when she writes the way her characters, both black and white across various socio-economic and educational levels, would have spoken in the 60s. You also know that, while it may make you squirm to read some of the beliefs of her characters, it’s that in-your-face dose of reality that is needed at times. Especially when rooms are still filled to the brim with whites who were reared by blacks, and other rooms are packed with blacks who took care of whites, and neither ever thought about how the other felt about it.
The fact that so many hands were raised at the signing is the very reason people need to read this book. Yes, the south has changed, and no, everyone here is not a racist. Not even close. But, the culture is still segregated on many levels. Many white children are still raised by African-American nannies and many unspoken divisions still exist. Blacks join whites in restaurants and walk through the front doors. We share silverware and restrooms, and our children all attend school together. Now, the separation is not so much divided on racial lines, but on class divisions that are much less apparent on the surface and much more universal.
In The Help, Stockett addresses the issue of class divisions within the white community, as the Junior League refuses to accept a newcomer into their inner circle. The newcomer is not black. She’s worse. She’s “white trash.”
Controversial? Yes. Confrontational? Yes. But, aside from all that, The Help is an interesting and important read with loads of laugh-out-loud humor and sparks of gut-wrenching hatred. The plot drags a bit at times, the dialect can take a while to feel natural, and parts of the tale are predictable – if not a bit silly; but overall, this book is an engaging read for nearly all readers, particularly those who have ever wondered what it’s like to live on the other side of the tracks…whatever side that may be.
By the end of the book, Stockett’s characters lead us into a new era and deliver a big slice of hope for humankind. Things are looking hopeful for Stockett, too. After receiving 50 rejection letters from literary agents, she finally landed the book deal of her dreams. Now, DreamWorks Studios is producing the movie based on her book. Southerners will be happy to hear it is being filmed in Mississippi and directed by Mississippian, Tate Taylor.