When first-time author Kathryn Stockett began writing her novel, "The Help," she had no idea that she was creating a book that would sell more than three million copies and spend more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
"I'm stunned," Stockett said of the novel's success. "It's not why I wrote the book.You write because you want to tell a story. And you write because you want to communicate your feelings."
In the case of "The Help," Stockett's feelings stemmed from the powerful bond she shared with her childhood housekeeper, Demetrie, and the longing she felt for her after she passed away. As Stockett soon learned, her feelings would resonate with people across the country who shared similar relationships with the maids and nannies who worked in their childhood homes.
"I get letters from readers from all over the world that say…'Oh my God,' you know, 'you wrote my story,'" Stockett said.
That was the case with Elizabeth Hays, a reader who grew up in Jackson, Miss. and was convinced that Stockett had interviewed her childhood housekeeper, Alma Cousin, when writing the book.
"I actually started a letter to [Cousin] to ask her about this, about why she wouldn't tell me that she had been interviewed by Kathryn," Hays said.
She decided instead to talk with Cousin about it the next time she saw her. "I asked her casually, "Have you read 'The Help?'" She'd never heard of it!"
At Hays' suggestion, Cousin read "The Help," and the book conjured memories about her experiences as a housekeeper in Jackson before the civil rights era.
In "The Help," a fledgling journalist named Skeeter convinces maids in Jackson to let her record their stories about the indignities they suffer working for white families in the 1960s. The injustices experienced by these maids struck a chord with Cousin.
"I worked for this lady, and she said, 'Alma, where do you go to the bathroom at?'" she explained, "And I said, 'Oh, in there.' And she said, 'Oh, I don't want you to use that one no more.' She said, 'You just going to have to go outside."'
Unlike many of the maids portrayed in Kathryn Stockett's "The Help," Cousin refused to stand for such ignorance and abuse.
"I said, 'You give me my money, and I'll be on my way.' And I left," Cousin remembered. "My daddy was a real strong man, and he taught us not to take nothing off of nobody."
When Cousin began working for Elizabeth Hays' family, she made it clear that she would only work for employers who treated her with respect.
"When you work as a maid, a lot of folks call you 'my maid,'" Cousin said. "And so I chose the word 'housekeeper.'"
As time passed, Cousin became a fixture in Hays' life, cooking for her, babysitting her, and teaching her life lessons that would follow her into adulthood. Though she was technically an employee, Hays regards Cousin as a member of the family.
"I can't separate her from the course of my life," Hays said, "She is ingrained with who I am."
Like Elizabeth Hays, two thousand miles away in Arizona, Ivy Johnston, 50, was also deeply moved by "The Help." It brought back memories of her own childhood maid, whom she hadn't seen in 20 years.