When Kathryn Stockett lived in New York City, she found she had a conflicted attitude about her hometown of Jackson, Miss.
If someone told her he heard the place was beautiful, she would reply with a statistic about its high crime rate.
If someone at a cocktail party said he felt sorry for anyone who had to live there, she would plant a stiletto heel in his toe and set him straight.
“Mississippi is like my mother,” Stockett told a packed Douglass Theatre audience Sunday afternoon. “I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the man who raises an ill word against her, unless she is his mother, too.”
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Stockett, 40, has a lot to say on the subject of Mississippi. In fact, she wrote a best-selling novel about it. More specifically, “The Help” is about the lives of black maids and the white women who employed them in the Jackson of the early 1960s.
The book came out in February and has since spent 32 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. In July, USA Today called it “the hot book this summer.”
Not bad for a debut novel.
Stockett, who now lives in Atlanta with her husband and their 6-year-old daughter, came to Macon on the invitation of Historic Macon Foundation. She was the focus of the latest installment of the group’s Sidney’s Salon series, quarterly gatherings that combine culture, wine and cheese. Normally, Sidney’s Salons take place at the Sidney Lanier Cottage on High Street, but Stockett was such a big draw that Historic Macon moved it to the Douglass, which was also a sponsor of the event.
More than 200 people attended. Most were women and many were book club members. The program began when Stockett took the Douglass stage and talked about the subject of her book and how she wrote it. “The Help” is about a young white woman named Skeeter who dares to write a tell-all book about the indignities suffered by black maids such as the patient Aibileen and the sharp-tongued Minny.
Stockett, a petite blonde with a silky Southern drawl, charmed the audience with sly observations delivered with a sweet matter-of-factness.
“When I was growing up in Jackson, I had no idea in my little white bubble of the Jim Crow laws,” she said. “I didn’t realize that it was against the law for blacks and whites to be buried in the same graveyard. Blacks and whites couldn’t attend the same school for the blind. I thought, ‘Who is making these dumb laws?’’’
Stockett grew more serious when she spoke of the inspiration for her book, a black woman named Demetrie who was employed by her grandmother and helped raise her.
“I wondered what Demetrie was thinking and feeling all those years when she was looking after me,” Stockett said. During the question-and-answer session that followed her talk, Stockett recognized raised hands with a polite “yes, ma’am.” Afterward, Stockett and the crowd moved to the Douglass’ reception hall for refreshments and book-signing.
“I thought she was fantastic,” Historic Macon Executive Director Josh Rogers said. “It’s rare to find someone who is as talented a speaker as she is a writer.”
Rogers said the idea for the event came from Historic Macon members who recommended that “The Help” be stocked at the Sidney Lanier Cottage gift shop. Historic Macon leaders, realizing that Stockett lived just up Interstate 75, thought it would be a good idea to book her for an appearance.
Kay Nelson stood in line to get her copy of “The Help” autographed by the author.
“We started our book club in September, and it was miraculous that this was our first book,” Nelson said. “It enabled us to unload with the guilt we felt. I grew up in North Carolina, and I didn’t know there was a problem until the civil rights movement came along and fired my conscience. This book has stimulated wonderful cathartic conversations.”
Sylvia McGee, who also waited in line for an autograph, had a slightly different perspective.
“My mother and grandmother both worked as ‘the help,’ so I made a lot of connections to the different characters.” McGee said. “I identified my mother with Aibileen. My mother was very mild-mannered, always a peacemaker, very wise, so I really got into that. ... This would be a good book to get a dialogue going, like we used to.”