Friday, September 9, 2011

Kathryn Stockett Taps The Help

Every now and again, it happens. An author spends five years of her life writing a book that nobody wants to represent. And for Kathryn Stockett, more than 60 literary agents gave The Help a pass before she found agent Susan Ramer.

The connection must have seemed improbable for Stockett. In some ways, Ramer had become her champion not all that unlike the character Elaine Stein, a publisher at Harper & Row who encourages principal character Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan to write a book about something that disturbs her in Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. The book has since become a best seller, which is now being propelled by a critically acclaimed motion picture that might be too heartwarming for its own good.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is anything but hype.

Told from the point of view of three narrators, The Help is a storytelling triumph in its ability to capture the duality of race relations and tensions between African-American housekeepers and white employers, as well as the difficult transition faced by a tradition-bound community caught up in the wake of the 1960s. Times were changing.

Although the narrators — Aibileen Clark, a middle-aged maid who has raised more than a dozen white children; Minny Jackson, Aibileen's friend, known for talking back to her employers as much as for her cooking; and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a recent graduate of Ole Miss with her heart set on being a writer — place an emphasis on ignorance, segregation, and hypocracy, the underlying story is more encompassing. It is also about people who choose to break from tradition and those who do not.

As such, Eugenia becomes as much as an outcast as the maids because she is more interested in pursuing a career as opposed to finding a husband. She also becomes an outcast because she sees African-Ameircans differently than her socialite friends, despite growing up on a cotton plantation. Although admittedly ignorant at times, Eugenia develops a sense of empathy for the housekeepers, built upon her own close relationship with Constantine Bates, a beloved childhood maid and confidante.

Eugenia is not alone with her feelings. Celia Foote becomes the de facto employer of Minny after she is fired by the daughter (nemesis Hilly Holbrook) of her employer, Miss Waters. Foote, who grew up in the economically-depressed and poverty-stricken area, is also a social outcast for other reasons: her commoner background, her admiration for modern fashion, and her marriage to Holbrook's former fiancĂ©.

Collaboration inspires unlikely camaraderie and friendship.

After taking a job as a domestic housekeeping columnist for the local paper (the only writing job available), Eugenia asks her friend, Elizabeth Leefolt, if she can ask Aibileen for cleaning tips. Although reluctant, Elizabeth gives permission and Eugenia uses the interviews as an opportunity to inquire about why her own childhood maid abruptly departed before Eugenia returned home from college.

At about the same time Holbrook begins the "sanitation initiative," which would require all white homeowners to build separate bathrooms for their black domestics. The bathroom initiative becomes the initial spark for Eugenia to settle in on the idea of interviewing housekeepers for their perspectives of working for white families.

The book does break its own pace at times. Most notably, one chapter is unexpectedly written in third person, breaking its stride as a first person narrative from three points of view. In addition, although the book rightly begins with Aibileen as the hook, it becomes clear as a the book progresses that Eugenia is the primary character and not Aibileen or even equally between Aibileen, Minny, and Eugenia.

Katherine Stockett is an author to watch.

Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, and later worked in magazine publishing and writing for nine years after graduating from the University of Alabama. Growing up, her family also had a beloved maid, one who had picked cotton as a child and married an abusive husband.

Stockett is honest, open and authentic when she talks about her own childhood. She doesn't apologize but seems to deeply regret her own youthful ignorance, such as considering her maid lucky to have a stable job picking up after a good, decent, and Christian white family. She also doesn't apologize for Jackson, freely discussing its deep-seated sense of shame and pride. She feels both critical and compassionate toward it, and is equally quick to defend or dissect it.

While the book is fiction, Stockett seems to have drawn some inspiration from her own conflicted feelings about segregation — the love between herself and her family's maid vs. her dismissal of racial concerns back then. She cannot stress enough that she makes no claim to know what an African-American woman might have felt in the 1960s but rather imagines it as an answer to questions she never thought to ask back then.

The Help By Katherine Stockett Earns 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Interestingly enough, The Help was almost passed by for review, given it had already gained significant traction and popularity. It was only out of curiosity whether the story was being propelled by hype that I picked it up. Almost immediately, after just a few pages, I found it to be a compelling and immersive must read.

The Help  by Katherine Stockett can be purchased on Amazon or the book can be found at Barnes & Noble. You can also download The Help for iBooks or as an audiobook. The latter is read Jenna Lamia, Cassandra Campbell, Octavia Spencer, and Bahni Turpin, with each narrator delivering perfectly on the point of view they lend their voice to. They do an exquisite job with an already extraordinary book and paint a darker, more frightening story than the motion picture ever manages to capture.
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