I devoured Kathryn Stockett's The Help this past weekend and while I liked it, (but didn't LOVE it) I loved all of the questions it brought up for me as both a reader and a writer. If you haven't read The Help I suggest you do and if you don't like to read novels, don't worry, the movie will be out this summer.
The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s and told through three first-person povs (plus one chapter in third person). The narrators are Skeeter, a young coed just home from Ole Miss, and two black maids: Aibileen, and Minny. Skeeter wants to be a writer and hopes that a book of interviews of Jackson's Black help will put her establish a literary career. The book chronicles much of that journey.
Stockett writes the two black maids' voices in dialect which bothered me a little (spelling Lord "Law" doesn't seem necessary) but what these voices made me ask was: whose story is this to tell? As Skeeter transcribes the stories of maids, changes their names and surely captures their dialect, does she question if this is her story to tell? If we could see some of that moral dilemma in Skeeter, we could assume that dilemma exists for Stockett as well. But Skeeter never asks, "Is it my place to tell these stories?" She wonders if maids will talk to her. She fears the danger the book will create for them. She worries that no one will read the book, but she never considers that it might not be her place to tell these stories at all.
Then I read about the lawsuit. Stockett's brother's maid, Ablene Cooper, is suing Stockett for using her likeness to inform Aibileen Clark. I wonder if Stockett asked Cooper to read the manuscript just to make sure her character was fictionalized enough for her comfort. What was the L-shaped crack that made Cooper feel taken advantage of by the author?
As I work on my next memoir I'm making a list of all my middle school friends who will need to read this manuscript before I publish. It is my book, but it is a story we all share. I want them to tell me if they want names changed or details removed. I want them to be able to read the book and say, yes, this is true to those years and to my experiences with Nori.
I enjoyed The Help and appreciate that Stockett decided to "go big or go home" as my friend Amy put it, but I also think writers are required to respect the people they characterize in whatever story they choose tell.