Is Kathryn Stockett the next Harper Lee?

Kathryn Stockett should be absolutely ecstatic with the success of her 2009 debut novel “The Help.”  Initially rejected by 60 literary agents before being published, it has sold over five million copies and spent more than 100 weeks on the The New York Times Best Seller list.  As the book and movie mirror the success Harper Lee enjoyed fifty years ago, with her 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird” I’ve been wondering if Stockett’s fate will be the same.  In one large respect, I certainly hope not. 

Harper Lee and Kathryn Stockett both tackled issues of racial segregation and bias in their poignant breakout novels, and shot quickly to fame.  They have the unique ability to develop amazingly complex and realistic characters that truly bring the South to life.  Lee’s tale of Southern life and racial inequality as seen through the eyes of Scout and Jem as they learn about their father and life, was an instant success and stayed on the Best Seller list for 41 weeks.  Now considered a “classic” American novel, it is regularly taught in schools to highlight social issues and injustice, and still receives high praise. 

 “The Help” exposed racial issues in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960’s when a young writer teamed up with several African-American maids to create a tell all book about working for white women.  At times, the novel seemed all too real, describing how quickly an African-American man can be beaten to death for using a white toilet, and how a simple accusation of theft can destroy the life of an African-American maid.  These stories would be such an outstanding tool to teach children about the devastation of racism, that I can see this book becoming mandatory reading for high school students, and could easily find a place on college reading lists.   

The magic crafted by Lee and Stockett is present on every page of their works, which translates well onto the screen.  In 1963, the movie adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird” starred Gregory Peck as respected Southern lawyer, Atticus Finch, and Robert Duvall as the reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley.  The result was Oscar gold!  Gregory Peck won for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and the film also won for Best Art Direction, and Best Writing.  The film received five other nominations: Best Actress in a Supporting Role -Mary Badham, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Music, and Best Picture.

This year, the Academy nominated “The Help” for three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role- Viola Davis, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role- Octavia Spencer.  Both women were marvelous in the roles, and I hope they are rewarded with an Oscar, just as they should be.  Based on the awards it has already won, an Oscar is highly likely.  “The Help” was nominated in several categories at the Golden Globes, rendering a win for Octavia Spencer  for Best Supporting Actress.  This past weekend, The Screen Actor’s Guild awarded an Actor to Octavia Spencer  for Best Supporting Actress, Viola Davis for Best Actress, and to the entire cast for Best Cast.  

Despite the praise “To Kill A Mockingbird” receives, few people realize that it was Harper Lee’s only book!  She never wrote another novel despite her immense success.  One can only imagine the interesting tale that could have been Lee’s second novel.  I only hope that the success of “The Help” doesn’t push Stockett away from writing as it did Lee.  But knowing that Stockett and her husband divorced while she was writing the novel, one could argue that the price paid for a best seller is quite high, and may not be worth it.  Here’s hoping that Stockett continues writing, and that the next book is even better!


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