Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" dredges up memories of segregation — and sparks conversation across racial and generational lines.
My friend is a bookworm. During visits to her summer home, we plant ourselves in comfy chairs on the big wide deck and sack out — me in the sun turning the bound pages, she in the shade scrolling the Kindle. Every now and then, we call to one another … listen to this … with some passage too moving to keep within the silence of our reading.
During last summer’s visit, she was enthralled with Kathryn Stockett’s novel “The Help,” a story of black women working as maids in white Southern households set in Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s. She would read passage after passage out loud and tell me how I had to read this book. I’d listen; pose questions about the characters and the plot. When she finished and said for the umpteenth time — you need to read this book — I looked at her and said I can’t; it’s too painful and too personal.
In my memory I could hear the tales of woe, the stories of the meanness of segregated America shared by a multiplicity of my family and friends. It was best not revisited but left in the past. I had moved forward. The only redeeming factor I could attribute to the segregation of blacks and their mistreatment by whites was the great migration, where Southern blacks left their indentured life and headed north, without which my parents would not have met and I would have never been born.
My friend, like the book’s author, is white and had been nursed by a loving black woman who tended her and her siblings and kept her Seattle-area home clean. In a National Public Radio interview, Stockett said she wrote the book in homage to the black domestic who raised her as a child. My friend was probably feeling that tribute as well.
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As the summer waned into fall and fall into winter, the book’s popularity soared, and by year’s end it was the number-one checked out book from both the Seattle Public Library and King County Library System. It continues at number two on the Northwest Independent Booksellers List and has remained on The New York Times Best Sellers List for 96 weeks.
NPR’s Michele Norris opened her interview with Stockett by relating her own experience, which mirrored mine: “It’s a book I can’t seem to escape,” she said. “For months, women have called, e-mailed, (and) approached me in the frozen-food aisle saying they would love to talk about a novel called ‘The Help.’ It’s a conversation starter, compelling white women to seek out conversations with black women about race and privilege.”
For those who are eager to share stories or memories that this book has unleashed, the wait is over.
The BookClub, a group of African-American women who are celebrating 20 years of sharing books by African-American authors, is hosting an interracial dialogue Sunday, Feb. 13, at the Mercer Island Library.
BookClub member Jackie Roberts, who lives on Mercer Island, said women in her Jazzercise class were eager for her to read the book. “Because we only read African-American authors, it was not one of our selections. However, several of our members finally read it. While it has provoked anger to tears, we felt an interracial dialogue honoring everyone’s feelings would be beneficial to host during Black History month as we celebrate our 20th anniversary.”
As I continued to wrestle with the book’s popularity, a friend — who is white and male — shared these observations:
“For me the book’s strength is twofold. First, it is a great read. The characters are engaging, strong and clearly defined. They’re distinctive in their view and actions. The story is gripping, filled with tension and release, love and hate.
“Secondly, for those of us who grew up isolated in our whiteness, the book opens up a world that is known to us but not felt. The women in the book allowed me entree into the emotions of a time and place I otherwise would never know as a white man from Arizona.”
I’ve surrendered. I’m listening to the audio version of the book and will be joining the dialogue Sunday afternoon. Come join me. And if you can’t and have a story to share, leave your comments here.
Carole Carmichael: ccarmichael@