The Help, first published in 2009, is the (rather impressive, in our humble opinion) debut novel by American writer Kathryn Stockett. Apparently, others are fans as well – by our count The Help spent an impressive two years on the New York Times Best Sellers list. In case that isn't enough for you, it was also a huge hit on the silver screen, exploding box offices in 2011. So yeah, we'd say she fared well with her first novel.
Set in racially segregated Jackson, Mississippi (Stockett's hometown), in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, The Help begins in August 1962 and ends in late 1964. Three women – two black, one white – narrate the novel in alternating chapters. They come together to publish a book of anonymously written stories about the experiences of black women working as maids for white families in Jackson.
OK, we admit that a book about a book about housework and taking care of kids doesn't sound like the most exciting thing on the shelf. But that's part of the brilliance of this novel – it takes housework and, yes, talking and writing about housework, to high levels of humor, danger, love, intrigue, and suspense. Oh, and do keep the box of tissues handy, because tears will be jerked. There are some agonizingly sad moments here. In fact, Stockett began writing The Help as a way to cope with her own loneliness and sadness. She says,
I started writing it the day after Sept. 11. I was living in New York City. We didn't have any phone service and we didn't have any mail. Like a lot of writers do, I started to write in a voice that I missed. I was really homesick – I couldn't even call my family and tell them I was fine. So I started writing in the voice of Demetrie, the maid I had growing up. (source)
So let's learn a little about Demetrie, then. Demetrie was like "the help" featured in the Stockett's novel, a black woman working in a white family's household. She was employed by Stockett's grandparents first, taking care of our author's father and uncle (source). She was a huge source of stability for Stockett growing up, boosting her self-esteem and standing by her when life was hard. When Demetrie died in 1986 (Stockett was sixteen), she was still employed by the family (source). This was well before Stockett began to really think about life from Demetrie's point of view. She writes,
I am ashamed to admit that it took me 20 years to realise the irony of that relationship. I'm sure that's why I wrote my novel, The Help – to find answers to my questions, to soothe my own mind about Demetrie. (source)
At times mischievous, at times wickedly ironic, at times heartbreaking, this novel argues that story writing and storytelling have the power to effect positive change for individuals and their communities. As Stockett's above quote suggests, this novel shows us that these are also tools we can use to deal with painful parts of our pasts. Oh, and in case you need a little comic relief in the midst of all this serious discussion, there're enough poo-jokes to fuel at least one episode of South Park. When this book gets hold of you, it'll have you laughing, crying, and hanging on to the edge of your e-reader, all at the same time.
Why Should I Care?
We hear a lot these days about "transparent society" – a phrase taken from the title of David Brin's 1998 non-fiction book that explores the positive and potential negative impacts of technology, privacy, and freedom. Advocates of a transparent society (like controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Asange) are most concerned with exposing abuses of power in order to safeguard the privacy of individuals. For others, transparent society means an Orwellian nightmare from which there is no escape. For some media outlets, transparent society means working overtime to satisfy the public's hunger for the secret lives of celebrities and politicians. And, hey, we just can't get enough reality TV.
The point is, we love (and, yeah, sometimes don't love) reality TV because it gives us glimpses into the lives of people we ordinarily wouldn't get to meet. We are fascinated by them in part because we see the people in them (in the case of, say, Jersey Shore) making public what were once private acts – like Snookie's manhunts and seductions, or ordinary things like using the bathroom, throwing up, having hangovers, brawling, and the like. Reality TV comes in just about every flavor we can imagine. With video cameras built right into our phones and computers, we all have the potential to be reality TV stars.
Archeologists, historians, and, yes, writers of historical fiction work to make the past more transparent too. Southern writers are known for shedding light on the highly-guarded secrets of that region. Ultra-famous Mississippi writer William Faulkner often did so by representing the haziness and confusion of southern life after the Civil War, through complicated narrative and grammatical structures and experiments with language, as in The Sound and the Fury. By contrast, Stockett's The Help reads more like reality TV. We are given glimpses into the secret lives of the white and black families of Jackson in the early 1960s, through the camera-like eyes of the black maids as they work on a book bringing their true, day-to-day, even intimate experiences to the public eye.
By diving into perspectives not frequently explored in popular literature, Stockett widens our perspective on the American historical past and might just inspire us to look around our own communities with new eyes. After reading The Help, who knows, you might find yourself inspired to grab that camera, keypad, or good old-fashioned pen, and begin your own chronicle.