GRAFTON, Mass. - When Grafton resident Lisa Krissoff Boehm picked up Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" for the first time, she found the tale incredibly familiar -- almost like, in some way, she'd lived it.
Boehm, a professor of urban studies at Worcester State University, is an oral historian. She spent a decade interviewing African American domestic workers for her non-fiction book, "Making a Way out of No Way: African American Women and the Second Great Migration."
"I read ("The Help") early on and I said 'oh my gosh, this is what I did,'" said Boehm, who talked with the author -- before the book became a publishing phenomenon -- about tying her non-fiction book in with the book.
Unlike the heroine of Stockett's novel, Boehm was not doing her research in stealth in the Deep South during the 1960s and her subjects were extremely willing to talk with her. Boehm, after all, was recognizing that their stories were part of an unrecognized segment of American history: the Second Great Migration, the movement of African Americans from the South to northern cities between 1940 and 1970.
As in "The Help" however, Boehm's interest in the subject was inspired by a family maid: Esther Woods, who worked at her grandmother's home. Boehm was impressed by Woods, who worked as a maid for many families, and realized that Woods' story would be only the start of a look into an under-researched part of American history. With Woods' assistance, Boehm was introduced to several women, all of whom were happy to refer her to others.
"People would say to me 'why aren't you interviewing with your own group?' I was never quite sure what they thought my own group was," said Boehm, who conducted her interviews in Detroit while teaching at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. "As an oral historian, however, it was an opportunity. African American women had to work outside of the home. It seemed like it was not only their story, but also the story of a lot of women who needed to work -- and, the women I talked to, they were more than ready to talk."
Starting in the pre-World War II period, about five million people migrated from the South to northern cities, where factories were in desperate need of labor. This migration is credited with helping to improve the financial prospects of black Americans, who were able to move their children into the middle class as a result of their labors.
For African American women, the move north often meant working in other people's homes -- juggling the needs of their own families with the needs of the families for whom they worked.
"I found these women knew how important their stories were," Boehm said,. "They just wanted to get it out."
Boehm's original taped interviews are now in the collection of Harvard University's Schlesinger Library, for use by future historians hoping to get a glimpse of life in this period.
"When 50 million people, most of them African American, come from the South to the North, that transforms culture," she said. "It transforms music, it transforms voting patterns."
Stockett's novel has been criticized for its use of dialect in the stories of the black maids. As an oral historian, Boehm shared that reaction.
"If someone used the word 'ain't,' I used the word 'ain't,'" Boehm said. "But if they said going and they dropped the g, I used the common spelling. I didn't say 'goin.'"
Boehm is hopeful that interest in the movie adaptation of the book, which premiered this week, might inspire some people to look more at the history of African American women of the period.
"If they're talking about the book in their reading group, they might want to pick up this book to learn more," she said.
Boehm took her position at Worcester State in 2000, moving first to Shrewsbury before settling in Grafton. She is working on another oral history of the period, this time focusing on white Southerners who moved north.
Boehm will be discussing her book on National Public Radio's "Takeaway" program on Friday, an interview that will be posted later on the NPR website.