Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Kathryn Stockett's novel "The Help"

Kathryn Stockett is 40 years old, slight and graceful with blond hair and a wide-eyed, slightly startled expression. She lives in an elegantly decorated house in Atlanta, Georgia; when I arrive, her husband, Keith, who works in software technology, is out back marinating pork for the next day’s barbecue, and her six-year-old daughter, Lila, is at the swimming-pool with some neighbours. Stockett is completely charming. She talks like a Southern belle, though it’s probably the English concept of a Southern belle; 'Would y’all care for something to sip on?’ she asks. She serves tea and cake while telling me about when she attended 'culinary school’, caressing the words in her high sing-song voice.

We take our tea on to the doorstep in front of her large detached house in a neighbourhood that is actually very close to ugly downtown Atlanta, but is a world apart: a leafy park, ancient oak trees, beautiful houses, mostly built in the 1920s, with wide lawns front and back. It is like those idyllic streets where the teenagers in American horror films live.

Stockett is telling me about her grandparents, who played a big part in her life when she was a child. Her grandmother Caroline grew up in Shanghai in a family of missionaries ('Grandmother went over there with her family to save the souls of the heathens’), returning to Mississippi when war broke out. 'She came back to settle down and start a family with a very strict idea of how things should be between people of colour, coming from Shanghai, where there was no middle class. And of course that is exactly how Mississippi did things, so she fitted right in.’

She married Kathryn’s grandfather, Robert Stockett Sr, and employed a maid called Demetrie to bring up their two sons, one of whom was Kathryn’s father, Robert Jr. ('We call them maids,’ Kathryn says. 'I’m told that’s not PC now; we should call them housekeepers.’) Robert Stockett Sr was an equestrian and he ran a stable, with retired horses given to him by the Southern Cavalry. Everyone in Mississippi knew about Stockett’s Stables. 'It was a place where people gathered; a lot of older men came there to sit on the porch and talk; people would say that there were more laws made on the porch of Stockett Stables than in the state capital.’

Robert Snr, (to whom the book is dedicated), who died only recently, aged 98, was 6ft 4in and wore knee-length riding boots. 'He was good friends with [the writer] Eudora Welty; she had TB and at the time the only thing recommended for TB was fresh air and sunshine, so she’d go and hang out at the stables; but she’d get upset if those men said too many curse words.’

On the other side of town, Stockett grew up with her older brother and sister, Susan and Rob. Their parents divorced when she was six. 'After that, my mother would go out of town a lot – she was in her thirties, she was good-looking and she needed some space. Mother was wild. She wore high heels and low-cut sweaters and she dated a journalist who traveled all over the world. So she handed us over to Father and he would stick us in the motel.’

Her father owned Ramada Motels in Mississippi. Sometimes Demetrie would go and look after the children in the motel, more often Stockett would go to her grandparents’ house after school, where she would stay. 'It was just heaven for a kid: you had horses and there were people who’d catch them for you and saddle them up and you could just roam everywhere; there was tons of land to explore, and a haybarn and the sawdust barn – imagine a room of this size full of sawdust shavings? And there was a rope swing in there, and we could drive old trucks around…’

Mostly, she liked the fact that everything stayed the same at her grandparents; they ate lunch and supper there every day. 'There was always a big gathering for lunch. If you came to lunch once my grandparents would set a place for you for the rest of your life, and expect you to come.’

But she was a little bit displaced. 'I didn’t always know where my mother was, I didn’t know where my father was, but I always knew where Demetrie was. I would go to my grand-parents’ six days a week. Demetrie was always there.’

Stockett’s life growing up in Jackson in the late 1970s is not really comparable with the time her book is set in the early 1960s; but even now most of the well-off white families in Mississippi have maids, and most of them are black. 'The relationship between white families and the black help doesn’t exist any more the way it did; the intimacy is gone. It’s a good thing, because black people were hugely dependant on their employers – we were their source of income. Demetrie didn’t have a car; she didn’t have health insurance. If she needed the doctor we took her, and we paid. And that was the understanding: you come and work for our family, you look after us for the rest of our lives, and we’ll look after you for the rest of your life. Now the help is being paid better, they’re being treated on more equal terms, but we’ll never have that intimacy with them again. Blacks and whites are not close any more in Mississippi. But that had to happen. We had to separate and break off that dependancy so that down the road we can come together as equals.’

In her afterword to the book, Stockett quotes the writer and journalist Howell Raines: '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 says it took her 20 years to realise the irony of the situation with her beloved Demetrie. 'We would tell anybody, “Oh, she’s just like a part of our family,” and that we loved the domestics that worked for us so dearly – and yet they had to use a bathroom on the outside of the house.’

Did Demetrie have her own bathroom? Stockett looks steadily at me. 'Yes.’

And did you just accept that at the time? 'I never knew about it! I’m so naive and stupid that I never gave a thought to where she went to the bathroom until I was 20. I’m so embarrassed about this. It never occurred to me that she had a separate bathroom, but when I came home from college I found this door on the outside of my grandparents’ house.’

The Stockett family went to Demetrie’s funeral, it was the first time Stockett had been to a black church. 'I’d never had any interaction with black people except those who worked for our family. And I couldn’t believe how overt their emotions were. There were people speaking out during the sermon, joining in, agreeing with the eulogy, singing loud solos impromptu… but what really struck me as heartbreaking was how Demetrie’s husband was carrying on.’

Demetrie’s husband was called Plunk, and he was drunk and abusive, so much so that she slept with a pistol underneath her pillow. 'As I understand it he beat the crap out of her, but at the funeral this man was wandering the aisles, screaming, fainting from heartbreak that Demetrie was dead, calling out her name and throwing himself at the coffin – people were dragging him away, soothing him. It horrified our family. I was 16. I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut.’

Stockett would beg her grandparents to be allowed to go to Demetrie’s house but they always said no. Finally, just one time, they agreed. 'I was probably seven. I got to look around for five minutes. It was a strange feeling to realise that Demetrie had another life; it was my first awakening that she was a person with an identity outside the Stockett family.’

Book Club Reacts to "The Help"

Kathryn Stockett's Hometown Reaction

Katie Couric speaks with a book club from Jackson, Mississippi to get their reaction to the book and its description of the racial boundaries in the segregated South of the 1960s.

1 comment:

  1. I sincerely hope that Kathryn Stockett writes another book. Even her notes in the back of the book were touching and wonderfully written, a must read!
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