A conversation with Australian author Richard Flanagan about his latest book “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” The Man Booker Prize-winning novel is based on his father’s experience as a slave laborer in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.
Diane invites listeners to join a Readers’ Review discussion of a novel that has touched a nerve with many people. It’s topping best-seller lists across the country. “The Help,” by Kathyrn Stockett centers on a young, white woman and two black maids in 1960s Mississippi.
- E. Ethelbert Miller poet; director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, Board Chair of the Institute for Policy Study. And author of the forthcoming book "On Saturdays I Santana With You."
- Natalie Hopkinson media and culture critic for TheRoot.com, The Washington Post's black interest Web magazine. She is coauthor of "Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation" and the forthcoming book, "Go-Go Live."
- The Right Reverand Jane Holmes Dixon retired Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Pro-tempore.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. At the height of the civil rights movement in the deep South, white socialites and their black maids spent their days together, but lived in different worlds. For our Readers Review this month, we're going to talk about a fictionalized account of what happens when women of different races start a movement of their own to change their town and the way mothers, daughters, caregivers and friends view one another.
MS. DIANE REHMThe book is titled "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett. And joining us here in the studio to talk about the novel is The Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon. She is the retired Episcopal Bishop of Washington, poet E. Ethelbert Miller and Natalie Hopkinson of the TheRoot.com I hope you'll join us as well. As I've said, this is a best-selling novel. I know many of you have read it. We're going to open the phones early today so that you can join in as we talk about the series of episodes in Kathryn Stockett's book, "The Help." Good morning to all of you.
REV. JANE HOLMES DIXONGood morning.
MR. E. ETHELBERT MILLERGood morning.
MS. NATALIE HOPKINSONGood morning.
REHMIt's good to have you here. Jane Dixon, I think that this book appealed very strongly to you personally. Tell us why.
DIXONIt did Diane. I read it this summer. A friend gave it to me who had been at a book-signing party with Kathryn Stockett and sent it to me. I couldn't put it down because it is the story of my life in Mississippi from whence I come. Interestingly enough, I did read it and put it down. And when your producer called and asked if I would be on this show a couple of months ago, I had to re-read it because I had literally repressed so much of it. I found that this book convicted me of the life that I led growing up in Mississippi.
REHMSay more about that...
DIXONWell, I am about the age of the white woman, Skeeter, in this book. I graduated from college in 1959. I did not return to Mississippi to live. I lived in Nashville after graduating from Vanderbilt, but I well know this world. We were blessed in our home to have a woman who worked for us for years and years, Julia Toliver (ph) . And I think what convicted me the most was I've never had a chance to talk to her. She was murdered in the summer of 1961. I had married in 1960 and moved away from there so she and I never had a chance to talk after my life changed and became aware of the really terrible conditions that we white folk imposed on our African-American brothers and sisters.
REHMEthelbert, how did you react to this story?
MILLERWell, I looked at this book on a number of levels. First, I saw this book as a book about two women who wanted to be writers in Jackson, Miss., one old, one young, one black and one white. And I saw these two women finding their voice. So that was one of the things. That was one of the first things that jumped out at me. And then, I saw this book as being a book about secrets. Almost every character is hiding something and as we know, secrets are eventually shared privately and publicly, as you know. But this was a book about secrets.
MILLERThen I felt the backdrop was good in terms of this is an early civil rights movement so the events behind these characters' stories is the, you know, march on Washington is going to take place. Medgar Evers' slang, which is very important -- and also what I'm glad was mentioned was the fact that right after King's march in the march on Washington, you have the bombing in Birmingham. And I think that when you look at those events and the impact it had on black people, especially older black people, that's the change.
MILLERWhat is very interesting is that Howard Zinn just died, noted historian. And I think that when you look at Zinn talking about people making history, the people in this book, the help, these are the people who are back from the civil rights movement, you know. And I mean, you see this slow changing consciousness and I think that Ms. Skeeter is a witness to that, in terms of -- you know, these people surprise her in terms of what they're willing to do and in terms of the quiet courage.
REHMAnd Natalie, you ,the youngest on this panel, how did you react to the book?
HOPKINSONWell, for me -- I am 33 and so I've never known legally-enforced segregation. I went to Howard University by choice and, I don't know, it's mostly foreign to me and so it really brought to vivid life what a lot of the rationale was. Like, I mean, I feel pretty ignorant, but I did not realize that segregation of bathrooms, it was seen as a sanitation issue. You know, I thought that they just held a grudge and just didn't want to be around them. But it, you know, really sort of brought to life, this idea that black people were seen as livestock. They're seen as something less than human. You cannot use the same bathroom as them because it's a sanitation issue and that was the big storyline throughout the book.
HOPKINSONAnd so, you know, that really added a whole new dimension for me in my understanding of what segregation was about and what the rationale was for it. Like, the thought that someone would see them as less than human happily is so foreign to me that, you know, it really took this book to kind of bring it to life.
REHMNatalie Hopkinson, she's media and culture critic for TheRoot.com, that's The Washington Post's black interest web magazine. She's co-author of "Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation" and the forthcoming book, "Go-Go Live." And if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org Jane Dixon, as Natalie talked about the construction of that separate bathroom, I was so horrified reading that this central character in the book was relegated to a bathroom outside the house to which she had to walk through the rain to get to.
DIXONWell, it's real, Diane. The woman I just spoke about, Julia Toliver, who was such a central figure in my life, had to do that. At our house, there was a different house in the back that was called the servant's quarters. It was a house that had a bedroom and a bathroom and that's where she -- that's what she used.
DIXONMy brother, who is a medical doctor who lives in California, called me about two weeks ago. He was reading the book. And I said to him, was that really what happened for Julia? And he said, of course, Jane. You just don't choose to remember that. But that's where she went to the bathroom. She did not live at our house. She had her own home, but she was there seven days a week.
REHMBut one of the central characters, a white woman, decides that this is the only sanitary way...
REHM...for the black maids to dwell within the white homes, even a separate set of dishes.
MILLERWell, you know, whenever you look at how groups have interacted, whether it is black and white, whether it is Asian and white, usually the other is seen as someone who has a disease. Even down at the house, sometimes we label things Asian flu, you know, so, you know, you have a concern about anybody who is not your race when they sneeze on you.
MILLEROr you could go back a few years ago where, you know, if someone was from Haiti, you felt they had AIDS. And so what happens, you look up and we begin to exclude people because we feel the others have a disease. And we justify that with laws and then the laws separate people.
REHMSo you had separate drinking fountains. You had separate bathrooms. I mean, that's on the public level.
MILLERAnd that's the fear, too.
REHMBut here, we are in a private home.
DIXONWell, my father was a medical doctor in this town where we lived and had a hospital. And there was the black wing of the hospital and there was the white wing of the hospital. He did use the same operating room for everyone, but the fact is, when folks stayed, they stayed in separate facilities.
REHMInteresting. Here is an early e-mail from Dinah in Dallas. She says this is the best description she's heard of this book, how cruel and how kind women can be to each other. And it is Skeeter Phelan who is that woman who is trying to reach out to try to understand the reality of these black women's -- the help lives.
HOPKINSONYeah. And I actually, you know, I'm a black woman, but I found myself really relating to Skeeter a lot. I worked for The Washington Post as a reporter for many years and one of the most vivid scenes for me was when Skeeter was trying to convince one of the maids to participate in this book.
REHMAnd describe the book...
HOPKINSONWell, she decided it was sort of an ethnographic look at maids in a fictional town in Mississippi and so she would promise them anonymity, but she had to recruit all of these maids to share their stories. And the first maid that she approached, you know, the way Kathryn Stockett did such a good job of describing how inconceivable it was for Aibileen to participate in this. You know, like me as a journalist, I'm for, you know, disclosure, sharing, giving me voices. And, you know, I found myself on Aibileen's side, like no. Do not talk to this woman.
HOPKINSONYou know, don't, don't do it.
HOPKINSONWell, because you have so much to lose. You know, you're -- it seems, you know -- again, from my perspective, you know, having a voice, I mean, this is the time of everyone has a voice and, you know…
REHMBut not then, not then...
HOPKINSONNot then. It was very revolutionary and very powerful to be able to just tell what your story was.
REHMThe book we're talking about is titled "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett, a bestseller. Do join us.
REHMAnd welcome back. For our February Readers Review, we've chosen Kathryn Stockett's bestseller "The Help." I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Here in the studio, E. Ethelbert Miller. He's poet, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, board chair of the Institute for Policy Study and author of the forthcoming book "On Saturdays I Santana With You." Is that the right title?
MILLERYeah, that's Santana.
REHMThat's interesting, interesting. And Reverend -- The Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon. She is a retired Episcopal Bishop of Washington Pro-tempore. And Natalie Hopkinson. She's media and culture critic for TheRoot.com, that's the Washington Post's black interest Web magazine. Here's an e-mail from Bob who says, "Is it just me or does the book not spell out very well how Skeeter, who is the white woman, who gets the whole book project started, does not describe very well how Skeeter becomes self aware. Even your guest from Mississippi confesses she saw no problems with the world in which she grew up."
DIXONI think Skeeter is an amazing character, but you have to remember that she came back to Jackson in 1960 and '61, I believe, is when the book starts. The story has begun there at this time. I was gone by then and the story began for me in Nashville, Tenn. when the civil rights movement moved from Greensboro, N. C. to Nashville. But this is a woman who had had that incredible relationship with Constantine, who had worked in their home.
DIXONAnd her honest relationship with that woman must have stirred something in me because I can only attribute the fact that when I did begin to open my eyes, that I went back and remembered the interactions that I had with Julia in my own home, and her talk about Jackie Robinson, who was the big figure for her in the '50s. Dr. King came along. I was in college by then away from home, so she and I only had very few conversations about Dr. King. But you have to remember Skeeter was in school when Dr. King was very active in Alabama during those days.
REHMAnd one other thing that you and Skeeter have in common, she never got to talk with Constantine.
REHMAnd nobody told her why Constantine had left. And you never got to talk with Julia.
DIXONNo. I remember well coming home from an event when my mother called to tell me that she had been murdered the night before. And I will go to my grave regretting that, that she and I never were able to sit down and talk about all of this. And as my change in life came as the opening and moving to Washington, which was one of the great events, and marrying a man who had just graduated from law school for whom the Constitution and the Bible were on the bedside table, that she and I could not talk about this and the changes that had come in my life. And I attribute that early awakening to seeing that Christmas card with pictures of black faces on it that she was sending to her friends.
MILLERYeah, I think that she is different because she immediately realizes that she has a dream. She wants to be a writer. That in the early '60s makes her different from all the other women. Makes her different from her mother, makes her different from some of her girlfriends who are going off to college simply to find somebody to marry. So that sets her off, okay, that sense of being a writer. Reading "Catcher in the Rye," that will set you off.
REHMYes, you bet.
MILLERYou can see she's a little different. And when it gets down to a choice between writing or hooking up with a boyfriend, she's preferring the least --this goal, and she's not even clear if she is a writer or whether she's simply a -- wants to be an editor.
REHMBut she has the courage to reach out to an editor in New York and, by darn, she gets a call back.
HOPKINSONYes. And, you know, that was actually one of my favorite characters in the book, this -- was it Elaine Stein?
HOPKINSONWho was the hardnosed editor...
HOPKINSON...who gives her very blunt advice about how she can make it as a writer.
MILLERAnd don't live with your mother.
HOPKINSONRight. And that was the thing that when you talk about her awakening, I mean, the very cynical part was she was just trying to make a name for herself.
HOPKINSONAnd for those of us who are writers, that is something that we grapple with, is how much is it exploitation? Are you just getting peoples' stories and using them? She's gone off to New York and she's riding off into the sunset when it's all over. But what happens? What is the impact for those maids? Will they lose their job? What is the impact on the words that you're doing?
DIXONAibileen knows her job is gone at the end of the book, as she walks out that day that that's over for her. And she also knows that she still has to support herself.
REHMAnd she also knows she is going to be a writer.
REHMShe is going to be a writer.
REHMSo she has somehow been changed. She knows she's been through something very, very serious, but she is going to become a writer. Let's open the phones so all of you who would like can be part of this program. First to Hale, Mich. Good morning, Julie, you're on the air.
JULIEGood morning, Diane. First of all, I just want to say how I love your show.
JULIEYou are (unintelligible) stay-at-home moms. But my book club just finished reading "The Help" and we're just a bunch of white women up in Michigan. And we had no idea that the African American people had to walk such a tightrope in dealing (unintelligible) these jobs. And then the one character that we really liked was the white woman who lives outside of town who was kind of the trashy outsider...
JULIE...and how she didn't see a division between the blacks and the whites. She didn't think there was a separation. And then we were also very thankful to the author for having such a gentle ending. We were -- I was so afraid that something tragic was going to happen to one of the characters. And I'm so thankful to her for not having a horrible ending.
REHMShe tread very, very carefully, I agree with you, Julie. You know, one thing you said brings to mind a question that's been raised a lot. And that is how a white woman could be so bold as to write from a black perspective. How do you feel about that, Natalie?
HOPKINSONWell, I have to say when I -- I always look at the author and I look at the author blurb. And so when I knew that this was a white woman who wrote it, I immediately -- in the first section, it opens with Aibileen's story, which is the black maid. And I did find myself getting my pencil out and editing her Ebonics because it wasn't...
HOPKINSONYou know, in some cases...
REHMIt didn't work for you.
HOPKINSON...sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
HOPKINSONBut to her credit, the characters were so vivid and compelling, I put my pencil away pretty quickly into it. And, no, it wasn't perfect, but I think she did a very good job of getting the dialect and -- Ethelbert, what did you think?
MILLERShe means well.
MILLERI say that in terms -- when I first picked it up, that was the first thing I was -- I'd look at the spelling of words and stuff like that and I had a little problem with that. But then, because I'm reading a lot of manuscripts and a lot of books, I said, okay, let me see where this goes. It's just like you blow the first two notes or you tune your guitar and something (laugh) -- then you get it -- and then you get it. But I would want to mention this, because you mentioned about the ending and stuff. I would not want something that's in here, which is key, to be overlooked. The development of the men. I think that the Leroy character who was married to Minnie is very important because there is domestic violence here.
REHMNow, talk about who Minnie is and talk about Leroy.
MILLEROkay. Minnie's another one of the maids.
MILLERShe's one of the maids that pretty much defines this book because when you get into the whole thing of the rules that the help is supposed to follow, it is Minnie's mother that explains the seven rules. Now, you're the righteous here, so you know that there's things that are spent out in terms of numbers of seven and ten.
MILLERAnd so that's outlined in the early pages. But what happens is that this is the woman, this is Minnie who she really has to bite her tongue. She's the one that's sassy, she's the one that's not gonna turn her back.
MILLERBut so at the same time, her private life is...
MILLERIt's horrific. And I think that that needs to be really (word?) discussed.
REHMAnd she has to bite her tongue because she's lost several jobs because she talks back. She simply won't take it. Now, Natalie, I'm going to ask you whether you would be willing to read the opening page...
REHM...of this book to give our listeners a sense. And what I want to remind you of is that the author has said she purposefully used only words that are in the dictionary and not made up words.
HOPKINSON"May Mobly (sp?) was born on an early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby, we like to call it. Taking care of white babies, that's what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised 17 kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying and go in the toilet bowl before their mamas even get out of bed in the morning. But I ain't never seen a baby yell like May Mobly Leefold. First day I walk in the door there she be, red hot and hollering with the colic, fighting the bottle like it's a rotten turnip. Ms. Leefold (sp?) , she look terrified at her own child. 'What am I doing wrong? How can I stop it?'
HOPKINSONIt? 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 for baby girl stopped her crying, got to smiling up at me like she do. But Ms. Leefold, she don't pick up her own baby for the rest of the day. I seen plenty of womens (sic) get the baby blues after they done birthing. I reckon I thought that's what it was.
HOPKINSONHere's something about Ms. Leefold. She not just frowning all the time, she skinny. Her legs are so spindly, she look like she done growed them last week. (laugh) Twenty-three years old and she lanky as a 14-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 Red Hot candy box, pointy chin and all. Fact, her whole body be so full of sharp knobs and corners, it's no wonder she can't sooth that baby. Baby's like fat, like to bury their face up in your armpit and go to sleep. They like big fat legs, too, that I know.
HOPKINSONBy the time she a year old, May Mobly follow me around everywhere I go. Five o'clock would come around and she be hanging on my Dr. Scholl shoe, dragging over the floor, crying like I weren't never coming back. Ms. Leefold , she'd narrow 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 your chillins (sic) ."
REHMNatalie Hopkinson. She's media and culture critic for TheRoot.com, reading from the first page of Kathryn Stockett's book "The Help." It's our Readers Review for this month. You read absolutely beautifully. Thank you.
HOPKINSONOh, you're welcome.
REHMNow, did reading it, did the words feel authentic?
HOPKINSONNo, they didn't.
REHMDid they feel authentic to you, Jane Dixon?
DIXONNot exactly, no, they didn't.
DIXONWell, I have a hard time as a white woman reading language that's put in a black context because it doesn't hit me in the right way. Somehow I hear that and I'd be interested to hear what my two colleagues here say. It hits me as demeaning.
DIXONTo read this put in -- you called it Ebonics?
DIXONThat sounds demeaning to me. And I would be interested to see how you react to that.
MILLERYeah, I think what happens is that we just don't measure this page by page. What we're looking at is in terms of the voice of the character.
REHMThe whole thing.
MILLERThe whole thing. And then, also what we're looking at is in terms of the depth of the characters that the author creates.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go now to Benjamin in Daytona Beach, Fla. Good morning to you, sir. Go right ahead.
BENJAMINOh, good morning. Thanks for having me on.
BENJAMINI wanted to make a comment about this book. It's very focused on the women and the main character -- or one of the main characters, Skeeter. I wanted to ask how everyone felt about this book, if it was told with a male lead character and males were the, I guess, primary focus, how that would be different in the context and time that the book is told. And how things might not have -- how male characters might not have become as self aware as easily because of all the gender notions connected to race and all of that during that time.
REHMInteresting question. You know, one of the people we invited on this program, who could not come, was Vernon Jordan who, himself, lived this life. He said he was a caddy. He was a chauffeur. He had all kinds of less-than-sterling jobs in his own mind. But what's your reaction?
MILLERYou could go back to (unintelligible) for "Colored Girl." Once you bring in the male voice, the story's different and so it's no longer a woman's story. I think when I look at how even the characters in this book are struggling to become writers, they go to a newspaper and saw all men -- you know, the women are trying to find their voice. What happens is that we can look at a ton of books. You know, the male voices always (word?) , okay.
MILLERWhat I do feel is that the male characters who are here are very interesting in terms of what they represent. They represent power in terms of (word?) . They represent power in terms of Leroy and his household, he's controlling it. And then, it's very interesting, that in the case of Leroy and Minnie, they work for the same family, you see. I mean, there's a very interesting thing in terms of you don't see them coming home talking about their work.
REHMAbout what they've done, yeah.
HOPKINSONIf Leroy begins to talk about that, that changes this book because now it's not about the maid, it's about somebody who's...
REHMHe doesn't talk.
MILLERRight. It's somebody who's working outside the house.
REHMHe just hits.
MILLERThis takes us inside the house.
HOPKINSONYeah, and I think that it's another reason why this is very powerful because it is told from the point of view of women who, as Ethelbert said, were the foot soldiers in the civil rights movement who didn't often get a voice. They were never front and center and they quietly toiled. And they are the ones who donate to church, who raised the babies, raised their own babies, raised the white women's babies.
HOPKINSONAnd it's really -- if you really want to get -- well, I'm biased, but if you really want to get to the humanity of any situation, look at the home, look whose hand is rocking the cradle. And that's why -- and it was such a revolutionary thing for them to attempt to even publish the book. It shows how even today it's still -- people are still looking for that male voice. And women should have a voice as well.
REHMNatalie Hopkinson, E. Ethelbert Miller and Jane Dixon. We'll take just a short break. More of your calls when we come back. Join us on 800-433-8850.
REHMAnd we're talking about the book "The Help," a novel by Kathryn Stockett on the bestseller list. It's a portrayal of Jackson, Mississippi, in the early '60s when the civil rights movement was really just getting off the ground. Here is an e-mail from Sheryl who says, "One of the things that really makes me crazy about this, can't live with them and couldn't ride the bus next to them, however, they would let their slaves breastfeed them. You don't get any closer to a person than that." How did you react to that, Natalie?
HOPKINSONYou know, and that was one of the reasons why I just thought that colored water fountains were just a grudge because I'm, like, how -- you are very intimate if you're having your...
REHMWell, of course.
HOPKINSONShe's a wet nurse. I don't understand that. But I actually just finished another book called "Wench" that talked about -- it was in the period of slavery and the house slave in this book was not allowed to nurse her child because she had to be sent out to the slave quarters to do it. So, you know, again, to me, it really re-enforces this idea of, like, this is livestock. This is not a human being that you're talking about. And so you can have, you know, them drink cow's milk, you know. But it's something that's not quite the same intimate, loving experience that we think about breastfeeding is today.
REHMHere's another perspective from Susie in Grand Rapids who says, "I am Caucasian woman from the north. Did anyone else find this book trite, predictable and above all presumptuous? The author was ill-advised to pursue such a premise. From the reviews it got, I thought it could change my life. But it annoyed me to tears. I should have put it down, but I kept waiting for it to get better. Give me Toni Morrison any day." What's your reaction to that, Ethelbert?
MILLERWell, it's good there is a Toni Morrison in the world as well as a Kathryn Stockett.
MILLERYou know, I mean, what you have is a different read. I mean, right there, you go see the reason why there was a civil war. You know, different parts of the country see things a different way. I mean, I could pick up something about California and think it's trite, you know. I could pick up -- well, this is NPR so I shouldn't say, pull out certain states.
MILLERThey might be calling. What do you mean, Ethelbert? We'll meet you in Nevada, you know. What I'm saying is that, you know, this is one of those -- the challenge is in terms of the American story.
MILLERAnd bridging the gap.
REHM...bridging the gap.
MILLERRight, right. And so what you hope is that, you know, writers undertake, discover stories that have not been told, present them. Maybe you'll hear another story. Maybe you'll -- you know, Aibileen will have her own book, you know. And so that goes on from there. And so, you know, I think it has a lot to do with what a reader brings to the text and what are the expectations.
REHMHere's an e-mail which says -- it's from Clare in Dallas, "I absolutely loathe this book and am surprised your guests are finding that much to like about it. I'm a middle-aged white female reader. I found the dialect distinctly uncomfortable. I found the characters to be extremely stock, flat players (word?) maids, evil junior leaguers, clueless men, a brave white woman, the list goes on. I thought Minny was the only well-rounded character in the book since her life was written with ups and downs. She was a mixture of good and bad, shades of gray, as most people are."
DIXONWell, I found Skeeter torn. She eventually goes to New York, but she is torn there in the end when she is with the man who has proposed to her. And when he comes and puts the ruby ring on the couch and whether she's going to stay in that world and have the marriage that her mother has prayed for and hoped for and worked for.
REHMBecause he's a rich white man.
DIXONHe's a – everything so I find her – the interesting thing, Diane, is that my daughter-in-law, who's a medical doctor in Vermont, a native of England, went to Mississippi for the first time this summer for a family wedding. She comes back and reads this book and it opens the world in which I grew up and the world in which her husband spent many summers in the '60s and '70s visiting his grandparents. Her book club has just gotten through reading -- unfortunately, she couldn’t be there the night that they talked about this book. But instead of, for her, being flat and stock, this opened a world to her that she had never known.
MILLERNow, let's put Toni Morrison aside. This is a first novel. All the things -- the comments that were made we could raise that for first novels. But then, let's bring somebody else into the equation. Bebe Moore Campbell, "Your Blues Ain't Like Mine," first novel, a little earlier in terms of the 1950s. Her depiction, I think, of her white characters are exceptional in that book. And that's a first novel. If I was, for example, giving out the PEN/Faulkner Award, I probably would go with Bebe Moore Campbell over Kathryn Stockett as first novelist, you know.
MILLERBut I saw -- when I came across how she dealt with the benefit, I said, okay, here's an author having problems in terms of, okay, I've got to bring all these characters together. How do I do it?
REHMIndeed. Let's go to Hedgesville, W.Va. Good morning, Jim, go right ahead.
JIMYeah, I just want to make a couple of observations that I saw personally. My uncle lived in Jackson, Mississippi. And as a matter of fact, he was the mayor from 1968 to 1976 and his name was Russell Davis. And then, in 1960, he was also the Hinds County representative. And I know that when, my grandmother and I, we'd take a drive down there and he would literally brag about how little they paid the housemaid. I think it was like five dollars a week or something like that. And, you know, to us, you know, I mean, we were from the Washington, D.C. area. That was just -- that would infuriate my grandmother and she would admonish my uncle terribly for paying his hired help so little.
JIMAnd I can also remember one other time we went to a Howard Johnson, went there for a dinner and we had a black waiter. And after the dinner was over, for a tip, they left the man a quarter. So I mean, it's very true. I have not read the book. I'll guarantee I'm going to read it now, but it was bad in those days.
JIMAnd I think anybody, be they white or black that writes anything from their -- that experience, then I'm pretty sure is right on the level.
REHMJim, I'm glad you called. Any comments?
MILLERNatalie and I were talking about how much we get paid.
HOPKINSONWe're, like, yes, our -- you know. My help is very cheap as well.
REHMAll right. To Toledo, Ohio, good morning, Nate, you're on the air.
NATEGood morning. I did read this book and I thought it was a -- I realize that some people think it's a trite book, but I think that when you look at the efforts that were made in the '60s -- and I was born in Alabama and I'm a 60-year-old guy now and live in the north. But it took some white people with courage to make that happen. It didn't just all happen because black people were marching. And I thought that Stockett wrote a brilliant book. I think her descriptions of some of the things are not even -- are the major subject were done in a very well. I think she's a great -- I think she's a good writer, a very descriptive writer.
REHMI think you're absolutely right. What do you think?
HOPKINSONYeah, and, I mean, I would say -- and I love Toni Morrison, of course, but it's -- you know, I think this is one of the pluses about this book. It was very accessible. You know, it's -- you could have many very revolutionary ideas in your book, deep philosophical issues that you're dealing with. But if people can't understand what you're saying, you know, it sort of is the tree falling in the forest.
HOPKINSONAnd, you know, this is something that people -- anybody could come to it. It was an easy read. You can sort of zip through. And, to me, it accomplished what you want a good novel to accomplish, which is, you know, opening up a world to you or giving you a new way to look at a world that you already know, as Reverend Dixon talked about.
MILLERYeah. I think what you find her do, I think she listens well. I mean, you see the character, you know, doing that. And I think that's what Stockett is --she's developed a good ear in terms of listening to these stories. It probably began when she was very young.
REHMShe's got to really, I think, as Nate says, have a lot of courage to pursue a book from this perspective.
DIXONI have great admiration for what she did. I think to open this up, as you say, in an accessible way and if somebody like you could understand that what many white -- I'm not saying all. This is a total -- okay, I have to be careful. It's not a generalization, but there were many white people who considered African American people lesser forms of humanity than they were. That's true. I know that's true. And if it could open that up and why there were black bathrooms and black water fountains, it's because of fear of disease. Then she has done something that I hope my grandchildren are going to read and understand what was. And we always know that history can go back to things.
DIXONI mean, if anybody looks at civil war history and what happened with the Emancipation Proclamation, reconstruction and then what happened with Jim Crow laws, we know that history can repeat itself if we don't understand what needs to be understood. So I think she has helped a lot of people understand the reality of what was.
REHMI agree. Let's go to Montgomery, Ala. Good morning, Sue. Thanks for joining us.
SUEHi. I'm from Montgomery, but I'm living in Tuscaloosa now and, Diane, I love your show.
SUEI was going to address a few things. One, I felt -- I've read the book in a book club and I thought it was excellent for what it was trying to do. I think that she was speaking to southern white women and trying to open the eyes of some people who are still asleep. And I don't think that the dialect was necessarily excellent, although, as a white woman, 71, it didn't offend me, but I did find that it wasn't as accurate as what I have experienced. But I did feel that she was writing to try to expose something. And I also -- I listened to some other people on the air. I experienced the thing of people paying only five dollars a week. And my mother-in-law, at one point in New Orleans, paid eight dollars a week, which was very high.
SUEBut I was embarrassed to have a maid that I didn't pay more than that. But back to the book, the prejudice -- the question about how did the author overcome her prejudice or how did she open her eyes. From my experience, all it took was one or two experiences of extreme prejudice to say, what is all of this about?
SUEAnd I think that that could have happened with her. Also, her father, in the book it indicated that he was just with his help and that he would have never allowed something as unjust to happen to any of his workers, his black workers, as some things that were happening in the area.
REHMI think that's a really good point you make, Sue. Ethelbert?
MILLERYeah, I was just talking about the whole thing of courage in terms of crossing the line, you know. This is taking place at a time in which we saw people who were (unintelligible) or dealing with voter registration coming into the South. There was risk for her to be going over to the...
MILLER...to the black neighborhoods at a certain particular time. You know, there's one...
REHMI was scared to death every single time she did.
MILLERAnd, you know, when you get a knock on the door you don't know who it is and things of that sort. And then, that's (unintelligible) from between 1954 into the early '60s if you would document the level of violence -- the level of violence or terrorism, if you really want to call it, it's real and I think it takes a courageous person to pursue this type of book.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One of the most touching scenes toward the end of the book is when May Mobly starts realizing that her beloved maid is going to leave. Jane, would you read that for us.
DIXON"May Mobly runs out in her nightie and she stopped in front of me. She hiccupping and crying and her little nose is red as a rose. Her mama must have told her I'm leaving. God, I pray, tell me she didn't repeat Ms. (ph) Hillie's lies. Baby girl grabbed my skirt, my uniform, and don't let it go. I touch my hand to her forehead and she burning with fever. 'Baby, you need to get back in the bed.' 'No,' she bawls, 'don't go Aby.' Ms. Leefold come out of the bedroom frowning, holding little man. 'Aby,' he calling out, grinning.
DIXON'Hey, little man,' I whisper. I'm so glad he don't understand what's going on. 'Ms. Leefold, let me take her in the kitchen and give her some medicine. Her fever is real high.' Ms. Leefold glance at Ms. Hillie, but she's just sitting there with her arms crossed. 'All right, go on,' Ms. Leefold say. I take baby girl's hot little hand and lead her into the kitchen. She bark out that scary cough again and I get the baby aspirin and the cough syrup. Just being in here with me, she calm down some, but tears is still running down her face. I put her up on the counter and crush up a little pink pill, mix it with some apple sauce and feed her the spoonful. She swallow it down and I know it hurts her.
DIXONI smooth her hair back. That clump of bangs she cut off with her construction scissors is growing back sticking straight out. Ms. Leefold can't hardly look at her lately. 'Please don't leave, Aby,' she saying, starting to cry again. 'I got to, baby. I'm so sorry.' And that's when I start to cry. I don't want to. It's just going to make it worse for her, but I can't stop. 'Why? Why don't you want to see me anymore? Are you going to take care of another little girl?' Her forehead is all wrinkled up just like when her mama fuss at her. Lord, I feel like my heart's going to bleed to death. I take her face in my hands, feeling the scary heat coming off her cheeks.
DIXON'No, baby, that's not the reason. I don't want to leave you.' But how do I put this. I can't tell her I'm fired. I don't want her to blame her mama and make it worse between them. 'It's time for me to retire. You my last little girl,' I say, because this is the truth. It just ain't going to be by my own choosing. I let her cry a minute on my chest and then I take her face into my hands again. I take a deep breath and I tell her to do the same. 'Baby girl,' I say, 'I need you to remember everything I told you. Do you remember what I told you?' She still crying already but the hiccups is gone. 'To wipe my bottom good when I'm going?'
DIXON'No, baby, the other. What about what you are?' I look deep into her rich brown eyes and she look into mine. Lord, she got old soul eyes like she done lived a thousand years. And I swear I see down inside the woman she going grown to be, a flash from the future. She is tall and straight. She is proud. She got a better haircut and she is remembering the words I put in her head, remembering as a full grown woman. And then she say it just like I need her to. 'You is kind,' she say, 'You is smart. You is important.' Oh, Lord, I hug her hot little body to me. I feel like she done just given me a gift. 'Thank you, baby girl.'"
REHMThe Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon. She is, in fact, The Right Reverend. She is the retired Episcopal Bishop of Washington. She has just read from the ending of "The Help". I hope you've enjoyed our readers review of Kathryn Stockett's book with E. Ethelbert Miller and Natalie Hopkinson. Thank you all so much.
REHMAnd I want you to know that for our next Readers Review we'll bring you the story of the passionate young woman, her cowardly lover and her aging vengeful husband, "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
REHMHope you join us. Thanks for listening today. I'm Diane Rehm.
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