It was released way back in 2009, but it’s currently number one on both the trade paperback and e-book fiction New York Times bestseller lists. It’s been made into a hit movie with lots of Oscar talk, especially for lead actress Viola Davis. It’s a summer reading pick by Oprah Winfrey, and the release of the movie has made it a selection at book clubs across the country. A colleague at a conference in Chicago a couple of weeks ago waxed glowingly of the book and told me she plans to see the movie. A colleague at work told me there was no way she was going to see the movie. It’s hot. And it’s controversial.
It is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Is it another landmark book and film on the civil rights movement, or (as one writer put it) is it “just another example of Hollywood’s interest in black stories, but only if they are told from a white protagonist’s viewpoint?”
The Help is about three women in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi: two black maids and child caregivers (Aibileen and Minny), and a white college graduate who has returned to the south (Skeeter). Skeeter aspires to be a writer, and she has been told by a professor to write about what bothers her. What bothers Skeeter is the racism and hypocrisy in her community, and she convinces Aibileen and Minny to spill their stories about life as black maids in Jackson.
Since Aibileen and Minny are major players in the story, it’s not tokinism that is causing the controversy. Much of the controversy revolves around the fact Stockett is a white writer, which immediately provokes many readers to first question the authenticity of such a story. Is it honest? Is this just going to be another story of a liberal white person standing up for the rights of black people? What does she know about the experience of black maids during that era? (Stockett’s family was cared for by a black maid until she was 16, when the maid died.)
Similar questions were raised when Rilla Askew’s novel about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, Fire in Beulah, was published in 2001. But leaders in Tulsa’s black community were quick to see the honesty and authenticity of Askew’s work and her five years of research into the clouded event. More than anything, there was an appreciation that the truth about the slaughter of people and the destruction of America’s Black Wall Street was finally seeing the light of day.
Stockett is finding it harder to win positive reviews from many critics and readers, despite the book’s phenomenal success. She is criticized for the dialogue she writes for Aibileen and other black characters (“You a kind girl”). She is criticized for the dialogue she writes for the white characters (Where is the southern accent?).
She is accused of making Aibileen an Uncle Tom, a “good” minority, a person who absolves the white people around her. The archetypes of Uncle Tom and Mammy are invoked by the characters and setting of The Help. Those archetypes add to the criticism that The Help ignores real history about the state of Black America in the 60s.
I suspect it is mostly a good thing when a book is the subject of debate in America. If nothing else, maybe more people will read it to find out for themselves, or read the reviews and discussions going on surrounding the work to understand the cultural, historical and social issues that are being debated.
Just take a look at what people are reading, writing and watching on the web about The Help:
The Queen’s Castle: Excerpts from Jet magazine and other items on The Help.
NPR: The Help Draws Audiences, and Ire
CBS News: Katie Courie interviews Kathryn Stockett
Check out this article on NewsOK about women who have cleaned homes, past and present.
Okay, it’s your turn: Have you read The Help, or seen the movie, or both? What’s your reaction? Are you staying away from the book and movie for some reason? Tell me, tell me, please…
Young Bill Young here, stealing a piece of Kitty’s online real estate one more time.
I’m not a librarian, but I play one in real life for my friend Ralph. Ralph is in the third age of life, and he’s embarked on a mission to re-read many of his favorite books and authors. Since I work in a library, guess who gets to do some of his Interlibrary Loan requests?
During the past year, I’ve borrowed books by George V. Higgins, Henry Kuttner, Lewis Padgett (the co-author pseudonym for Kuttner and his wife C. L. Moore), and illustrator/author Karen Wehrstein to help him in his quest. Most recently, he’s been rereading British novelist and mystery writer Nicolas Freeling.
Freeling was a popular, award-winning writer best known for his Van der Valk series, which was adapted for British television. His Henri Castang mysteries were not as celebrated, even though some critics believed them superior to the Van der Valk works. Freeling enraged his fans when he killed off Van Der Valk in 1972′s A Long Silence. The outrage over the loss of their favorite crime detective proved too much for his fans in Sweden and France, and both countries stopped publishing him.
But enough about Freeling. This post is really about how hard it is to find some of his books. I’m working down the list of Freeling’s two detective series so Ralph can read them in order, and so far I’ve struck out on finding two of the Castang novels: A Dressing of Diamonds and The Night Lords. They’re simply not out there on WorldCat to borrow through Interlibrary Loan.
Now I know that there is limited space on library shelves, that books are weeded due to disuse or bad condition, and that some books can’t be replaced because they are out of print. And, yes, the public is fickle and ever-changing. What’s popular today may be tomorrow’s cast-off. Still, it’s disappointing to find the works of a such a celebrated author disappearing from our library shelves and from publishers’ print schedules. Even a visit to amazon.co.uk reveals that many of Freeling’s works can only be purchased in used condition since they’re officially out of print in England.
A library colleague tells me it used to be hard to find books by Oklahoma’s own Jim Thompson. There wasn’t much demand for his dark pulp fiction, and his books were out of print. When a new appreciation for him emerged, some of his works were adapted to the screen (notably The Grifters, and After Dark, My Sweet), and he became even more popular than he was during his lifetime.
“We talk about immortal literature, but the vast majority of books are as mortal as we are.”
I wonder… will future generations come up with “no results” when they search for a John Grisham novel on WorldCat? Will they ponder the work of a forgotten author named Dan Brown? Will children still be reading Captain Underpants?
All is vanity.
Day after Christmas, the morning news is all abuzz with the new tech toys eveyone received as presents. The one that caught my ear was one newsperson complaining about how to get her Kindle up and running. I felt quite superior since I had no trouble getting my book opened this morning. The joy of being a Luddite.
Also much ado about the new Angels & Demons movie starring Tom Hanks, with Ron Howard directing.
Angels & Demons was written before the DaVinci Code. If you haven’t read it yet, go back and get the introduction to the fictional professor, Robert Langdon. It looks like the movie won’t be out until May 2009, so you’ve got plenty of time.
I’ve been thinking about where I could use some improvement for the coming year. Notice, I’m not about to call it resolutions, that would be asking for failure. And I remembered an old college philosophy professor who I greatly respected, Dr. J. Clayton Feaver. Unfortunately I only had one short course under him. We went to his house one day, and I remember gathering around him and hanging on each word, a Plato delivering lectures to dull headed Aristotles. He was my first introduction to people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. But the one thing I was particularly taken with and still remember all these years later, was when he said we should read at least one book a day, anyone can ingest a 200 to 300 page book in a day. At the time it seems like some sort of impossibility, and I wonder at all the words he read and wished to be able to do the same, still do.
So if I could accomplish one feat for the coming year it would be to read more, maybe a book a day, and remember kind interesting people that inspire and attempt to make us better.
I watched the Jane Austen Book Club this afternoon, movie about books and romance, what more could you want. I think I’m more of the Ursula K. Le Guin girl than Jane Austen, but both could work. I’ve got to re-read Left Hand of Darkness. Somewhere in this house is a copy of Voices, that I haven’t read. And I need to read the Jane Austen Book Club by Fowler.