'The Help' Author Says Criticism Makes Her 'Cringe'

Kathryn Stockett i i

Kathryn Stockett, who's from Jackson, Miss., says despite being raised with a black maid, her first novel is not autobiographical. Kem Lee hide caption

itoggle caption Kem Lee
Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett, who's from Jackson, Miss., says despite being raised with a black maid, her first novel is not autobiographical.

Kem Lee

After a quiet release, Kathryn Stockett's first novel, The Help, has slowly become a New York Times best-seller — and has its readers buzzing about its racial themes.

The book features two black housekeepers, Aibileen and Minny, who work for white families in Jackson, Miss. Their worlds are turned inside out when Skeeter Phelan returns home from college with pesky questions about segregation in the South. She asks questions like: Why are black maids subordinated so much they can't use the family bathroom, and yet they're trusted to care for that same family's children?

The Help
By Kathryn Stockett
Hardcover, 464 pages
Putnam
List price: $24.95

Stockett was raised in Jackson with a black maid named Demetrie, but she says the book is not autobiographical.

"It's fiction, but some of the facts and the settings and the backdrops — sure, that was Southern life," Stockett tells NPR's Michele Norris. "Having a separate bathroom for the black domestic was just the way things were done. It had faded out in new homes by the time [the] '70s and '80s rolled up. But certainly in my grandmother's time — and when I was growing up, yeah, Demetrie's bathroom was on the side of the house, it was a separate door. Still, to this day, I've never been in that room."

Stockett says the book pays homage to Demetrie, who died in 1986 when Stockett was 16 years old. Stockett says that when she was a child, she thought that Demetrie was "treated like a queen."

"We all adored her. She didn't have children of her own. When Demetrie got sick, we knew it was our responsibility to take care of her and pay her medical bills. And we embraced that," she says. "But the tricky part is, like so many families in the South, we also expected her to use a separate bathroom, to use separate utensils. What a dichotomy. What conflicting ideas that we love and embrace these women, and entrust them to raise our children and to feed us and to bathe us, but we keep something as silly as a bathroom separate."

Stockett says she thinks about Demetrie all the time.

"I always wonder, like, when would she had taken off her white uniform and had the guts to walk into the white grocery store just as a consumer?" she says. "I don't know, but I think about that a lot. Your white uniform as a black domestic was your ticket anywhere in town."

But Stockett has been criticized for trying to cast how a black maid might feel in a white household — and she says the criticism makes her cringe.

"I'm a Southerner — I never take satisfaction in touching a nerve," she says. "I guess if I'm forced to find a good side, I'm glad that people are talking about an issue that hasn't really been discussed all that much. I'm glad that people are talking about it from the black perspective and the white perspective."

Excerpt: 'The Help'

Cover: 'The Help'
The Help
By Kathryn Stockett
Hardcover, 464 pages
Putnam/Amy Einhorn
List Price: $24.95

August 1962

Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that's what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.

But I ain't never seen a baby yell like Mae Mobley Leefolt. First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic, fighting that bottle like it's a rotten turnip. Miss Leefolt, she look terrified a her own child. "What am I doing wrong? Why can't I stop it?"

It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation.

So I took that pink, screaming baby in my arms. Bounced her on my hip to get the gas moving and it didn't take two minutes fore Baby Girl stopped her crying, got to smiling up at me like she do. But Miss Leefolt, she don't pick up her own baby for the rest a the day. I seen plenty a womens get the baby blues after they done birthing. I reckon I thought that's what it was.

Here's something about Miss Leefolt: she not just frowning all the time, she skinny. Her legs is so spindly, she look like she done growed em last week. Twenty-three years old and she lanky as a fourteen-year-old boy. Even her hair is thin, brown, see-through. She try to tease it up, but it only make it look thinner. Her face be the same shape as that red devil on the redhot candy box, pointy chin and all. Fact, her whole body be so full a sharp knobs and corners, it's no wonder she can't soothe that baby. Babies like fat. Like to bury they face up in you armpit and go to sleep. They like big fat legs too. That I know.

By the time she a year old, Mae Mobley following me around everwhere I go. Five o'clock would come round and she'd be hanging on my Dr. Scholl shoe, dragging over the floor, crying like I weren't never coming back. Miss Leefolt, she'd narrow up her eyes at me like I done something wrong, unhitch that crying baby off my foot. I reckon that's the risk you run, letting somebody else raise you chilluns.

Mae Mobley two years old now. She got big brown eyes and honey-color curls. But the bald spot in the back of her hair kind a throw things off. She get the same wrinkle between her eyebrows when she worried, like her mama. They kind a favor except Mae Mobley so fat. She ain't gone be no beauty queen. I think it bother Miss Leefolt, but Mae Mobley my special baby.

I lost my own boy, Treelore, right before I started waiting on Miss Leefolt. He was twenty-four years old. The best part of a person's life. It just wasn't enough time living in this world.

He had him a little apartment over on Foley Street. Seeing a real nice girl name Frances and I spec they was gone get married, but he was slow bout things like that. Not cause he looking for something better, just cause he the thinking kind. Wore big glasses and reading all the time. He even start writing his own book, bout being a colored man living and working in Mississippi. Law, that made me proud. But one night he working late at the Scanlon-Taylor mill, lugging two-by-fours to the truck, splinters slicing all the way through the glove. He too small for that kind a work, too skinny, but he needed the job. He was tired. It was raining. He slip off the loading dock, fell down on the drive. Tractor trailer didn't see him and crushed his lungs fore he could move. By the time I found out, he was dead.

That was the day my whole world went black. Air look black, sun look black. I laid up in bed and stared at the black walls a my house. Minny came ever day to make sure I was still breathing, feed me food to keep me living. Took three months fore I even look out the window, see if the world still there. I was surprise to see the world didn't stop just cause my boy did.

Five months after the funeral, I lifted myself up out a bed. I put on my white uniform and put my little gold cross back around my neck and I went to wait on Miss Leefolt cause she just have her baby girl. But it weren't too long before I seen something in me had changed. A bitter seed was planted inside a me. And I just didn't feel so accepting anymore.

Reprinted from THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett with permission of Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2009 by Kathryn Stockett.

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