SOUTH FORSYTH — Kathryn Stockett had no idea her childhood was unique from the kids in other parts of the country or world until she was 24.
“Really, the realization of who I was and where I came from didn’t hit me until I moved to New York City,” the New York Times bestselling author said. “I was growing up in a part of America that wasn’t moving quite as fast as the rest of the world.”
Growing up in Mississippi in the 1960s and ’70s was, in fact, unique, though the ideas and themes are still relevant enough today for her to engage audiences by the hundreds and book-readers by the thousands.
Stockett’s experiences are what helped her write “The Help,” a novel-turned-Oscar-winning-movie that explores race relations during the height of the civil rights movement.
The narrative weaves the story of three Mississippi women who start a movement of their own. It spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Tuesday night, Stockett addressed about 800 people at the Lanier Technical College Forsyth Conference Center as the headlining author in Forsyth County’s annual Forsyth Reads Together. The effort is a month-long program of book clubs and workshops to promote community engagement.
Stockett said New York opened her eyes to a different world, one that wasn’t so much about race or religion but humanity.
“Once I got over the shellshock, I got to step away and look at how people relate to each other,” she said. “But just to see so many people living together, it makes you step back and think, golly, there is nothing really that separates human beings. We are all unique, yet, really, we are all the same.”
Though New York and her childhood in the South remain as separate stages in her life, together they spurred the book she published in 2009. She started writing on Sept. 11, 2001.
“She lost all contact with her family, and this was a way to help her deal with it,” said Stephen Kight, assistant director for public services for the Forsyth County library system. “Then she wrote the first chapter, which is unusual, because usually you go through a lot of edits.”
According to Kight and other members of the library system, Stockett found comfort during that time from the voice of her family’s maid.
That voice became the basis for the fictionalized character of Aibileen in the book, whose portrayal eventually secured an Oscar nomination for Viola Davis.
“The Help” has been Stockett’s biggest way of trying to keep the topic of race relations at a forefront of conversation, something she thinks is imperative in promoting social growth.
“Race is so taboo,” she said. “Everyone is so scared they are going to say the wrong thing, that they aren’t going to sound politically correct, and that fear has stopped a lot of conversations that we should be having, and that we were having 40 years ago. It’s just kind of sad.”
The conversation certainly was not stymied Tuesday to a crowd twice as large as last year’s.
“What made an impression on me, and I think what moved her about the book, was how much she appreciated just people coming together and having a conversation about a topic that can be so difficult to talk about when it comes to race,” said Jennifer Kovac, information technology services manager at the Cumming Library.
Micah Green, creative imagery director, contributed to this story.