Fact or fiction?
SALISBURY — Anyone who has read “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett, or has seen the new movie version will no doubt wonder how much of the story is true. Set in Jackson, Miss., during the early 1960s, it chronicles to some degree the growth of the civil rights movement, through the lens of the upper-class white women in the town and the black maids who serve them and care for them and their families.The book, published in 2009, was a runaway hit, spending more than 100 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and selling more than 5 million copies. It was quickly optioned by Dreamworks and hit movie screens this summer. To get in on what has become a public debate, join author Gene Dattel at the Scoville Memorial Library on Saturday, Sept. 10, at 4 p.m. for “The Help: Fact and Fiction.” Mississippi-born and raised, Dattel is a financial historian and author, most recently of “Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power.” His nonfiction book does not have the mass appeal of Stockett’s novel, but it benefits from Dattel’s provocative observations and rigorous research, drawn from a lifetime of straddling the North–South divide.Dattel was born in Greenwood, Miss., where “The Help” was filmed. He was raised in Ruleville, Miss., but left behind his Southern roots and headed to New England and Yale University, from which he earned his B.A. in history. He is currently an associate fellow at Yale’s Berkeley College.As a historian, naturally, he feels that the novel doesn’t capture all the nuances of the time period and the massive cultural changes going on in the deep South.In 2003, Dattel sponsored and organized an oral history project of elderly black women from Mississippi who had been either maids or field hands. The 30 interviews were conducted by two female Yale students — one black and one white. Dattel pointed out that blacks went from “the back of the bus” in the South to “forced busing” in the North. He quoted Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff’s 1969 reprimand: “You can’t integrate the South if you don’t integrate the North.”Dattel’s Fact and Fiction tour began at the La Grua Center in Stonington, Conn., and will be headed south to Jackson in mid-September, where he will deliver a major public address for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History at the Old State Capitol museum. “Stockett’s fictional account, based on selective anecdotes from oral histories, does not explore the full range of personal relationships within the harsh, oppressive racial system of the South,” he said. “Nor does it give a balanced portrait of the racial experience in America. Aibileen Clark’s [one of the book’s main characters] destiny as a maid was determined in 1800 in New York, Boston and Hartford, not just in the South. “The book leaves room for a lot more stories and a lot more truth.”For more information about the talk at the Scoville Library on Sept. 10, call 860-435- 2838 or go to www.scovillelibrary.org.