|The great indie bookstore, Square Books, on the Oxford square.|
Except that I will say: I liked the book, and more than I expected to after all the hype. (Actually, I had to give it a second shot: I checked it out from the library once during the summer, and found the handling of the dialect a little heavy-handed: “de doe nob” for “the door knob,” etc.). But I gave The Help another shot, and am glad. I also recently watched the movie on DVD, and as it always goes, thought the book was better, and dealt much deeper with the issue that's often raised about “the white girl saving the black women.”
But really, I'm just using The Help as an excuse to talk about Mississippi. Way back in 1995, I lived in Mississippi for a total of about 9 months, when I attended, very briefly, the University of Mississippi. (The school where The Help's Skeeter earns her English degree.) As you know by now, I'm a California girl, born and bred. Not to bore you with my entire personal history, but in 1995, I'd never traveled further east in the U.S. than a family trip out to Oklahoma for a week. I'd certainly never lived outside of my native state. Also, I was a “non-traditional” student, meaning that I didn't go to Ole Miss straight out of high school...nope, I was already well into my 20s, and had worked at several full-time office jobs while earning my General Ed credits at a community college.
And like now, I was a major bookworm, and through the years, had become fairly obsessed with THE SOUTH, or at least some idea of THE SOUTH. I'd read Carson McCullers and some Faulkner and Welty, and of course, Margaret Mitchell, but honestly I was more influenced by contemporary Southern writers, like Bobbie Ann Mason and Gail Godwin and Alan Gurganus, and most especially, Ellen Gilchrist, who was born in Mississippi. (Oh, and I was also heavily into Tennessee Williams: my chief fantasy about going to THE SOUTH involved me sitting before an old fan, in a chemise, and asking somebody to fetch me a “Co'-cola.” With plenty of ice, too, honey.)
|Courthouse on The Square, in Oxford. Image via here.|
Totally unaware and unprepared for the dominating campus culture of Greek life, I walked alone past the pillared sorority and fraternity houses, waving their Confederate flags. One frat house, on a Saturday, was waving the Rebel flag and blaring Lynyrd Skynrd out an open window. For all my loneliness, and isolation, and slowly dawning realization that I'd picked the wrong place, and didn't belong here, either, that one moment walking past that Chi Omega house made it all worthwhile. It felt so...iconic.
|Image via here.|
My main misconception about going to the South was that my fellow students would be interested, even fascinated, in the fact that I was from Cali-forny. In fact, quite the opposite was true. In the back of The Help is a brief interview with author Katherine Stockett. A native of Jackson, Mississippi, she talks about the defensiveness of the natives. What I experienced was a weird mix of pride and embarrassment, which she describes perfectly here:
"The rash of negative accounts about Mississippi, in the movies, in the papers, on television, have made us natives a wary, defensive bunch. We are full of pride and shame, but mostly pride.
Still, I got out of there. I moved to New York City when I was twenty-three. I learned that the first question anyone asked anybody, in a town so transient, was "Where are you from?" And I'd say, "Mississippi."And then I'd wait.
To people that smiled and said, "I've heard it's beautiful down there," I'd say, "My hometown is number three in the nation for gang-related murders."And yes, it was beautiful down there. And someday, I'd love to go back, and see it again,, and browse through Square Books and visit Faulkner's Rowan Oak, like I did with my now-husband on a beautiful, memorable November day.
To people that said, "God, you must be glad to be out of that place," I'd bristle and say, "What do you know? It's beautiful down there."
|Rowan Oak image via here|