Kathryn Stockett's debut novel The Help--set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, has been on bestseller lists for at least a year. The book is about the often uneasy, but sometimes affectionate relationship between the white women of Jackson and the black maids, cooks, and nannies (often one woman accomplishing all three jobs) who work for them.
Times are changing in Jackson, a civil rights movement is emerging, and young Skeeter, an aimless debutante armed with a college degree from Ole Miss is about to take aim--with a report on race relations from the front lines of the kitchen, the living room, the segregated bathrooms and the Junior League.
The Help is a runaway hit with book groups--at least the book groups that I lead and attend--which are filled with white ladies. In the course of the book discussion, some of these book group ladies will tell you that they employ women of color. Others employ women of color but will not tell you that they do. Other readers report that in days gone by they had live-in help--women of color now in their eighties who still call, still write, and constantly tell their employers how much they loved working for them.
Shoud I raise an eyebrow? Should I accept that as fact?
My readers are gracious ladies--no doubt many if not most were fair employers.
But, oh, if only the black and latina ladies in their eighties came to book group!
After some readers talk about what went on in their households, they go broader, with comments like, "Thank heavens we came of age in San Francisco and not Mississippi or Texas. We were always forward thinking here. "
Can you see where I am going with this?
I am a book group leader. I am a writer. I am a transplanted New Yorker--a Red Diaper granddaughter of socialists.
I live for nuance. I strive for the "could this happen here?" moment in book group.
Is it rude to ask book group members, as I did...."Okay, who here employs a person of color in their home?"
According to Great Books society book group leaders I was WAY out of line since its a personal question and does not have to do with the book.
According to many women in the groups that I led, I was WAYout of line.
What do you think? Was I out of line?
In restrospect it would have been better to simply ask, "How do you think employers treat their domestic help here?" Or ask :"Does this stuff happen in 2010? Can you offer some examples please!"
Just so you know, if you ever ask me to lead a discussion of The Help--I have lots of examples of bad behaviour on both sides of the employer/employee line! And the examples come from Palo Alto, and Menlo Park, and Atherton, and San Francisco.
Meanwhile, back in the land of literature:
Just so you know--and I am quoting author Meg Clayton (The Wednesday Sisters)--who led one of the book discussions that I attended, "The Help is not To Kill A Mockingbird."
The characters in The Help are not as well drawn, only the black women speak in dialect, and the ending is a bit hasty--we are left with a lot of loose ends--and possibly room for a sequel.
Actually, The Help is closer to Tony Kushner's play, Caroline or Change set in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1963--where one black woman, Caroline, works for the Jewish Gellman family.
Which is not to suggest that the Help become a musical. Although, you guessed it, there will be a film.
Would love to hear comments about The Help from book groups with more diverse demographics.
Do Southern women read the book and immediately want to move to San Francisco?
And how do they feel about The Help in Arizona right now?
And last but not least, if an African American woman had written The Help, would it still be a runaway bestseller? (Thanks again to Meg Clayton, who quoted an African American friend who raised the question)
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