Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Help and Historical Accuracy

Halfway through reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I thought about the perennial arguments in Romlandia about historical accuracy.

The Help is a story about domestic workers -- maids -- and the women they work for.  If it had been set in Edwardian England, it would be Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey.  But The Help starts in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962.

Governor's Residence, Jackson, Mississippi

That's in my lifetime.  I even knew that Shake 'n Bake wasn't around in 1963, a fact Stockett acknowledges at the very end of the book.

The thing is, I was growing up in upstate New York during this time.  The Help is about black domestic workers in southern middle class households during the last throes of the civil rights era.  I may have known about Shake 'n Bake, a national product, but that was pretty much my extent of ability to judge whether Stockett got it "right."  And as she was born in 1969, Stockett writing about the lives of black and white women in the early 60s would be like me writing about World War II, a feat only slightly less difficult than writing about World War I.  (At least my parents lived through WWII and told me about their experiences.)

Which is why the most fascinating bit of The Help, for me, was the section after the acknowledgements, which come at the end of the body of the novel.  Stockett calls it "Too Little, Too Late," and in it she writes of her experience with her family's black maid, Demetrie.  Then Stockett quotes Howell Raines's Pulitzer Prize-winning article, "Grady's Gift":
There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation.  For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.

Stockett then writes, "I read that and I thought, How did he find a way to put it into such concise words?   Here was the same slippery issue I'd been struggling with and couldn't catch in my hands, like a wet fish."  Later, she writes:
What I am sure about is this: I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s.  I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand.  But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.

"Too Little, Too Late" answered all my questions about The Help, a book I inhaled in less than 24 hours.  (I've even asked Ross to get The Help out of the library as an audiobook -- I'm pretty sure I wasn't doing the regional accents in the book justice.)  I enjoyed it tremendously and am very thankful that I read it before seeing the movie, which the trailer would suggest is trying to be "the feel good movie of the year."  The book isn't quite that unalloyed to be called "feel good" -- and I can imagine it's been criticized on both ends of that spectrum.  Some might say its ending is a bit of a downer (happy, yes, but happy enough?) while others might kvetch that most of the black women are a bit saintlike while most of the white women are just plain nasty as well as racist.

I noted those things in the same spirit as the Shake 'n Bake -- I can see why she presents her characters as she does, why the ending is as it is, and why she needed to have Kraft advertising Shake 'n Bake on TV a couple years before they did.

It's the things I didn't know, the things that a white girl growing up in the integrated Northeast had no way of knowing, that stunned me.  The Help -- like all engrossing books -- put me in a foreign land, showed me believable characters, allowed me to observe their interactions and empathize for their hurts, and become deeply concerned that everything turn out all right for them.  If it had been set during the Civil War -- if it had been The Wind Done Gone about the slaves at Tara -- then I'd have accepted the characterizations as accurate, partly because its author Alice Randall is black and partly because what do I know of America in the 1860s.  But a book set in the US of the 1960s invites a false sense of certainty on my part.  I was "there" so I should "know."

Well, I wasn't there.  The South of my youth might as well have been Almack's or the Battle of Waterloo for all I would know.  I trusted Stockett to get it right.  She's from Mississippi, her family had a black maid who cared for the children, and even if Stockett was twenty years too young to have experienced the period of The Help, she knows a lot more about it than I ever will.

So I trusted her, and I trusted The Help to help me get a sense of what it was like to live in that time.

4 comments:

  1. Magdalen--
    Talking Arkansas, not Mississippi--
    I will admit that I have not read the book. As I was explaining to a friend--I did not read it because I lived it(from the white side of the fence).
    My grandmother (b 1893 d 1987)had a long time black(politically correct term of that era) housekeeper who came several times a week to clean, etc, etc. She was a fixture of the household from my childhood. Anytime I visited, she was there. I loved her!
    (I can recall a conversation with my mother after the movie "Driving Miss Daisy" came out that dwelt on the relationship between my grandmother and her housekeeper--also relevant).
    Anyway, this woman stuck with my grandmother, as a care giver, at substandard wages, until my grandmother's death--because, as she told me, she felt she "owed" my grandmother, because she had been with her so long.
    It is very sad to say that my grandmother left nothing to this woman in her will. However, we five grandchildren (our fathers having predeceased their mother--another very sad story)all banded together and made sure that this fine woman got a very nice bequest from the family. Hey, it was the right thing to do--she was part of the fabric of our lives.

    ps--I could not have told you about Shake'n Bake's correct date--I was living in Hawaii at
    the time--a whole 'nother world!!
    pps--I lost track of the housekeeper after my grandmothers's death--she moved off to stay with a daughter. But I recently found out that she died, age 94. I am hoping that her last years were happy, and sad that I did not get to see her again after my grandmother's death.

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  2. Barbara -- You might enjoy the book in light of (rather than despite) your grandmother's experience. If you do read it, let me know what you think.

    My mother's family had "help" in New York City between the wars, but I know that situation wasn't fraught with issues the way things were in the segregated South.

    However, there is one funny story I recall. My parents got married in 1945, and my mother was almost immediately pregnant, a fact my grandmother was NOT happy about. The faithful servant (I don't recall her name) told my mother, "Miss Jofine, you better not have that baby one day before nine months." My sister was born nine months precisely after my parents' wedding.

    Ironically, my parents had been married on my mother's parents' wedding day. My mother was born eight and a half months later - which caused my grandfather to comment that it was a good thing he'd been in America up until just before the wedding, which was in London.

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  3. Who can know the experience of another person? This is simply impossible. I think the point of these kinds of books is not to inform us, but to challenge us. To cause us to think and reflect. To cause us to search our own hearts and ask the important question, "where does racism dwell in my heart?" I am a Cuban immigrant of some what mixed ancestry. I do not share a common history with this book, but I share common struggles with the rest of the human race. A struggle against the baser nature of self and towards the renewal that can only be found in Christ.

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  4. The Help is an amazing book. I was drawn in from the first page and never lost interest. It has been quite a while since I read a book that I couldn't wait to have a moment to sit down and read, and The Help definitely fits the bill. The author's ability to write in the distinct voices of each of her characters adds an incredibly interesting and touching dimension to the book, and makes reading The Help a truly exceptional experience. I loved this book!
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