The Help, Thoughts from a Local

The other night at a 4th of July party, a guy found out I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and proceeded to tell me it was a, "hell hole." I got all hot under the collar, just the way Kathryn Stockett talks about in the author's note of her best-seller, The Help, and decided I needed to vent, just one more time.

That said, I'm more than a little green in my BlogHer knowledge and not completely sure what I'm doing, but here's a post I did about Stockett's book a week or so ago on my blog. I'm sure I can't be the first one to write about it, and I won't be the last, but it's my silent retaliation to an obnoxious party goer. Sticking it to "the man" and all that. (Even though the man was from Alabama. He really should get off his high horse.)

Roots and Wings, July 2

Pretty much everyone I know has been on about this book for the last few months. I've heard lots of, "You've got to read The Help. It's SO good!" as well as the slightly outraged, but mostly anxious for me to get started, "You haven't read it yet?!".

I understand the urgency, especially in the case of my friends, as the book is set in Jackson, Mississippi, where I happen to have grown up and attended college (well, MC is in Clinton, but close enough). Several of my best-ies still reside in town, as do my parents, so it's all very close to home. Literally.

With the family beach trip on the horizon, I bought my copy and stowed it away, knowing Seacrest would provide the perfect setting for me to delve into Skeeter's (by this time I'd heard that name more than a few times) story.

Aside from setting and a character name, I knew two other things going in:

1. It's about black maids working for white families.

2. It's set in the 60's.

Then I thought,

"Awesome. Mississippi in the '60s. Not our proudest moment..."

Literally every person I talked to or heard from was obsessed with the book, but I have to say, it wasn't until about 3/4 of the way through that I got to the, can't-put-it-down-don't-talk-to-me, place. I definitely liked it the whole time, but after I was finished I really, really loved it. And the more I think about it now, the more it continues to grow on me.

Before starting, I had no idea things alternated between three distinct perspectives: two maids and the one white girl (Skeeter) breaking all the rules to tell their stories. Kathryn Stockett, a Jackson native, uses very very authentic language for each character, so it took a little bit of time for me to get into the cadence and speech of the maids' chapters, but once I did, I liked how real it made them seem; the depth it added to their points of view.

Every place she named gave me some sort of personal reference: Woodrow Wilson Drive, Canton, Madison County, The Robert E. Lee Hotel, Sun-n-Sand Motel, Farish Street, State Street, Fairview Mansion, Woodland Hills, Brent's Drug Store, Eudora Welty Library, etc., etc., etc. I chuckled to myself when one of the first neighborhoods she mentioned was Belhaven. I lived there for a year and, along with Fondren, it's my absolute favorite part of town -- all the old houses are being refurbished beautifully and it's becoming such an artsy, eclectic area.

It's weird to picture your hometown as the setting of a best-selling novel (and soon to be movie!) and know that people across the country are reading the story, making up images in their mind, while you can give every place a name and a face.

And mercy me, the Junior League. If you've read the book, you probably wanted to slap some of those ladies, roaming around like they're in Beverly Hills, planning parties for the Jackson Country Club set, certain their power ranks somewhere between the President and the Queen. And I can tell you -- those women are real. Lord, have mercy, are they. Some of the "North Jackson Women," as we tend to refer to them now, are old money and they'd like you to know it, thank you very much. I've worked with them. Seen them in action. Hilly Holbrook may be a fictional character, but her spirit is alive and well.

Not that every woman working in the Junior League or living in Woodland Hills is a conniving bitty with a fake smile, plotting your downfall or shutting you out (the way Hilly does Celia - who I loved, by the way) because you're not Junior League material, but they do exist. Appearance still outranks everything in some circles... especially amongst us "genteel" Southern women.

Ladies aside, the timeline of the novel made it all very poignant. At times it was a bit disheartening and uncomfortable to think that only 50 years ago, people were skirting around Jackson mouthing off propaganda about their "help" needing to have separate bathrooms so they didn't spread disease in the family toilets. Not to mention the beatings, the Klan and the murder of Medgar Evers. It's amazing to think how pervasively, blindly ignorant people can be, but it's history and shouldn't, and in our case, can't, be ignored. No one lets us forget, believe me.

I liked Kathryn's author's note to that end, where she discussed the various reactions she got about her heritage when she moved to New York, as well as a list of all the amazing things that have happened in our state, which no one seems to take the time to remember because of everything else:

"The rash of negative accounts about Mississippi, in the movies, in the papers, on television, have made us natives a wary, defensive bunch. We are full of pride and shame, but mostly pride..."

To one guy, the author even lost her cool after he responded, "I'm sorry." (bad move, buddy) upon learning she was from Mississippi.

"I nailed down his foot with the stiletto portion of my shoe and spent the next ten minutes quietly educating him on the where-from-abouts of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Oprah Winfrey, Jim Henson, Faith Hill, James Earl Jones, and Craig Claiborne, the food editor and critic for The New York Times

However, our shame and triumph, and their intermingled history are not what I took away from the book.

Yes, it was a formative time in our town and state and country, and the story was especially relevant to the Civil Rights movement, using the backdrop of that tumultuous time to begin breaking barriers of color and class and everything else, to show there was and is common ground -- something we should ultimately be able to find with all people. (The tragedy of a character like Hilly is that she can't, or perhaps, won't seek out commonality.)

I loved that the maids simultaneously loved and resented the families they worked for, while the white women, the ones with all "the help," were often completely dependent on and loved their maids, while still somehow considering them second class citizens. It's a strange juxtaposition and not easy to put on paper. I think that's where Stockett's real talent shined; creating these three wildly different characters and giving them so much depth and relatability.

I really can't wait to see how it translates onscreen, and I think the casting so far is pretty much perfect.

I'm really excited about Viola Davis playing Aibileen. Watch her in Doubt and you'll see why she's going to kill in this role. She's amazing. Octavia Spencer is taking on Minny. I'm not sure what she's been in before, but from an interview I read with Stockett, it appears she based Minny on Octavia, so that should be spot on. And then there's Emma Stone as Skeeter. I like Emma a lot. This part is a bit of a departure from her previous stuff, but I think she'll be great. Bryce Dallas Howard is Hilly, which will require a very subtle bitchiness, clothed in an aura of gentility and she will definitely look fabulous in the clothes. Now, I'm not sure who I would have pictured playing Stuart, but when I saw Chris Lowell's name attached, I thought, "Hmmm. I think I like that." Something about him just looks Southern," so I checked him out on IMDB and discovered Chris is from Georgia. I know what I'm talking about, people.

Okay, that's enough rambling. My friends can all calm down. I've read The Help. It's fantastic. The End.


"Explore. Dream. Discover." - Mark Twain

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