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?
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."