MELISSA BLOCK, host: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
The movie "The Help" and the bestselling book it's based on have divided critics and audiences. Some say "The Help" offers an overly sanitized image of civil rights era Mississippi. Well, writer Ralph Eubanks is from Mississippi, and for readers and viewers of "The Help," he recommends another work of fiction that illuminates what was happening at the time. It comes from a great chronicler of the American South, Eudora Welty.
W. RALPH EUBANKS: When I went to see the movie "The Help" last weekend, I didn't want to like it. Yet in spite of its polished portrayal of the civil rights era, the film version of Kathryn Stockett's novel captures a window into the fear and suspicion that lurked between blacks and whites in 1960s Mississippi. Even with the film's Hollywood twists, I recognized on the screen the Mississippi where I grew up. But the next morning, when the glossy celluloid vision of my home state had faded away, I longed for something that reminded me of what a truly dark time it was in Jackson. I found it in "The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty," a short piece titled "Where Is the Voice Coming From?"
Critics and fans of "The Help" question whether a white woman in 1963, like the main character, Skeeter Phelan, could be brave enough to rebel against the white establishment. But there were women like Skeeter. In the same year in which "The Help" is set, Eudora Welty wrote "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" bravely capturing the feelings that were in the air in Jackson that year. They were feelings unspoken by many at the time, just as they were missing on-screen in "The Help."
Published in The New Yorker, "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" tells the story of the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers from the point of view of the assailant. Welty wrote the story the same night she heard of Evers' murder. It occurred to her that she knew what was going on in the mind of the man who pulled the trigger. She knew because she had lived all of her life where it happened. It was the strangest feeling of horror and compulsion all in one, Welty commented in an interview almost 10 years later. I just meant by the title that whoever was speaking, I, the writer, knew what the murderer must be saying and why. The result is a masterpiece of short fiction.
Knowing a bit about the way Evers' assailant, Byron De La Beckwith, stalked Evers, I get a chill every time I read these words: And there was his lights on waiting for me, in his garage, if you please. His car's gone. He's out planning still some other ways to do what we tell them they can't. I thought I'd beat him home. All I had to do was pick my tree and walk in close behind it. Eudora Welty believed that a novelist had a responsibility to bring alive both the mystery of humankind and the darkness. That's exactly what she does in the story.
As you read the closing line, you know she's captured life in Mississippi as it existed then. "The Help" does the same thing but with few hints of darkness. Whether or not you like "The Help's" optimistic tone, read "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" to fill in a piece of the story that's missing from the minute the credits begin to roll.
BLOCK: Ralph Eubanks is director of publishing at the Library of Congress, and he's the author of "The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South."
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