VJ Books Blog

JACKSON, Miss. – Good thing Octavia Spencer is an actress. She needed all her stagecraft to hide a horrified look when her friend, Kathryn Stockett, asked her to read her new novel, “The Help.”

Stockett told Spencer she based a character on her.

“My face just got hot,” Spencer says, “and I thought, `What are you talking about?”‘

It got worse. The character was a short, loud black maid who spoke in a Southern dialect and never seemed able to keep a job because of her big mouth, which didn’t go over well in the white neighborhoods of Jackson in the early 1960s.

“And I thought to myself, `If this is Mammy from `Gone With the Wind,’ I am just going to call her and tell her,”‘ she recalls. “I think by Page 3, I realized what she was doing and I realized how intelligent these women were.

“Oh, honey, to me it’s an amazing journey.”

Reactions such as Spencer’s are becoming common as “The Help,” Stockett‘s debut novel, creeps up the best-seller lists after an early February debut. The premise of the book usually causes an immediate visceral reaction, especially if readers know Stockett is white. After a few pages, though, most readers are hooked.

Entertainment Weekly reviewer Karen Valby called the book’s backstory potentially “cringeworthy” before giving it high praise and an A-minus. Industry standard Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and in The New York Times, Janet Maslin called “The Help” a “button-pushing, soon to be wildly popular novel.” Positive vibes are viral on the Web.   “It’s exciting to see someone get this kind of attention for a first novel,” Stockett’s agent, Susan Ramer, says. “This is very rare.”

Not bad for a manuscript that was shunned as Stockett shopped it to agents. She stopped counting at 45 rejection letters, but kept at it until Ramer snapped it up after reading a few pages. What others didn’t see – or care to read – was immediately evident to Ramer.

“Reading it, you say, `I’ve got to have this,”‘ Ramer says.

She was able to sell the book in a matter of days. Publisher Amy Einhorn chose it to launch her own imprint at G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

“We editors like to say that the books we publish are wonderful,” Einhorn says. “If we’re being truthful, the fact is books of this level don’t come along often. Everything I keep hearing from people is, `I can’t believe that’s the first book you launched your imprint with because it’s so amazing.’ It was kind of a no-brainer.”

The Help” tells the story of three women during the formative years of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, where it was dangerous to push the boundaries of segregation for both blacks and whites – though for very different reasons.

So when black maids Aibileen and Minny begin to work with a white woman named Skeeter on a book about their experiences as domestic help, they fear retribution ranging from firings to beatings.

For Skeeter, an awkward, hairdo-challenged University of Mississippi grad who has never had a boyfriend until midway through the novel, the penalty is ostracization from normal white Jackson society; she is branded as one of those “integrationists.”

In a sense, it’s a story of the movement behind the civil rights movement. But it is much more.

At turns hilarious and heart-wrenching, the story feels like a pitch-perfect rendering of a time when black people weren’t even second-class citizens in a state where anti-integration forces fought back with both restrictive laws and violence.

The 39-year-old Stockett was born in 1969, a few years after the novel’s events. Her family had a maid named Demetrie, who helped raise Stockett before Demetrie died in the mid-1980s. It wasn’t until much later that the author got a better understanding of the climate in which she grew up.

“I was young and dumb,” she said in a recent interview from Los Angeles where she was on book tour.

“I’m so embarrassed to admit this … it took me 20 years to really realize the irony of the situation that we would tell anybody, `Oh, she’s just like a part of our family,’ and that we loved the domestics that worked for our family so dearly, and yet they had to use the bathroom on the outside of the house.

“And you know what’s amazing? My grandfather’s still alive, the house is still there. Demetrie died when I was 16, and I don’t know that anyone else has been in that bathroom since then.”

It is the issue of separate bathrooms that spurs Aibileen to help Skeeter with her book. She wants to keep her job and her reputation as a skilled surrogate mother but she can no longer live with the idea that the woman whose children she raises thinks she carries diseases that white people don’t.

The stories that Aibileen and her friends tell Skeeter are funny, sad, poignant and terrifying, and are filled with consternation at the contradictory ways – and prejudices – of white people.

Stockett is continually surprised at the reaction to the book. It’s one of those rare books that gets pushed by both small booksellers and the big chains. It’s No. 1 on the Southern Independent Booksellers Association list and edged onto The New York Times and Publishers Weekly lists two weeks ago.

“I think it’s because of this word-of-mouth phenomenon because people begin engaging one another in discussions about how they grew up, what their feelings were about race differences in the `60s and whether or not they relate to this kind of story,” she says. “I’ve gotten so many e-mails from readers who are sharing their stories.”

(pasadenastarnews.com, Chris  Talbott, Apr 18)

Order your signed copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett from www.vjbooks.com