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.