Originally printed May 2, 2010.
It's not surprising that Prairie Lights Bookstore would offer to take half the profits from its sales of Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel, "The Help," and donate them to this summer's Iowa City Book Festival (www.iowacitybookfestival.org).
After all, the publishing world was "abuzz" with Stockett's debut novel last year. Not only did the "The Help" reach the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-sellers list, but it was soon awash in awards and critical praise.
Likewise, Stockett's Iowa City reading today offers yet another example of the power of our City of Literature to attract best-selling and well-loved authors.
Put those two things together, and it makes sense for Prairie Lights and Stockett's local fans to work together to help fund a festival that will bring even more writers to town over the summer. Co-sponsored by University of Iowa libraries, the July 16-18 Iowa City Book Festival is just one of ways the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization is directly helping the local creative economy get more butts in seats and heads on pillows.
"The Help" -- set in 1962 Jackson, Miss. -- provides an upstairs-downstairs account of the black women who help raise the children of rich white families. The novel becomes a book within a book as a young, ambitious 22-year-old woman returns to Jackson after college and, rather than settle into her own domestic station, persuades some of maids in town to tell their own story. The result becomes a tale of awakening that views America's racial divide from multiple perspectives.
There is a danger, of course, in the Jackson-born Stockett's decision to return to the nostalgic past of her own childhood and to imagine asking fictional characters the questions she never got to ask Demetrie, the maid who helped raised her. The resulting book could have been overly sentimental or downright offensive.
But Stockett seems to have found the right balance. "The Help" has been compared to "The Secret Life of Bees," by Sue Monk Kidd, in terms of its setting and early 1960s timeline. But it also has been compared with the work of black female novelists from Olive Ann Burns to Toni Morrison.
As Stockett explains in her author's statement, "I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman, on the other end of a black woman's paycheck, could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity."
You can hear Slockett read from "The Help" -- and help support the Iowa City Book Festival -- at 2 p.m. today in the Iowa City Public Library.
Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted a firstname.lastname@example.org.