It’s pretty much a rite of passage that every teenager reads To Kill a Mockingbird at some point during their high school career. Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s only book won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck. I love the book , but even I can see how today’s teens might struggle with it.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Jean Louise (Scout) and Jem Finch and their father, Atticus, a small-town lawyer. Narrated by Scout, the story takes place in Maycomb, Alabama in 1935. Although the action of the story takes place when Scout and her brother are children, the story is narrated from an adult’s vantage point which is how Scout is able to make some very worldly observations about society, childhood, prejudice and evil – all of which are themes in the book.
It’s an English teacher’s dream book, but it’s not without its problems – especially when you teach a generation of students who mostly read about sparkly vampires and cuddly werewolves. Still, I think it’s worthwhile.
I started reading I Am Scout, Charles J. Shield’s student-friendly autobiography of Harper Lee ( adapted by Shields from his book, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee) just before my students and I began our discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird. Even though I have probably read To Kill a Mockingbird a half dozen times or more, I’d never read anything about Lee’s life and I was interested.
If you ever wondered why Lee never published another book (and, really, who hasn’t wondered that?) this is the book for you. Shields traces Lee’s childhood, the youngest of four children growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. Almost from the beginning, it’s impossible not to see Scout when you read that Nelle (Ellen spelled backwards) Harper Lee:
had a reputation as a fearsome stomach-puncher, foot-stomper, and hair-puller, who “could talk mean like a boy.” Three boys had tried challenging her once. They came at her, one at a time, bravely galloping toward a dragon. Eithin minutes, each had landed face down, spitting gravel and crying “Uncle!”
Almost everything about Scout’s make-believe life is drawn from Lee’s childhood. Lee did call her father by his first name and he was a lawyer. Her childhood friend, Truman Capote, was the inspiration for the character of Dill. Lee’s mother was virtually absent from her life owing to issues with mental health. Several other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird were inspired by people in Lee’s life including Mrs. Dubose, a cranky morphine addict and Boo Radley, who is based on Alfred Boleware Jr., a Monroeville native who was rumoured to be “a captive in his own home, tied to a bed frame by his father.”
Shields also tells how Lee helped Truman Capote research (and some say write) In Cold Blood, easily considered one of the quintessential pieces of true-crime writing of the last century. The relationship between Lee and Capote lasted thoughout their lives, but was not without its trials; Capote was, perhaps, jealous of Lee’s success – even though he was certainly no slouch.
She reportedly had every intention of writing many novels, but never could have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird would enjoy. She became overwhelmed. Every waking hour seemed devoted to the promotion and publicity surrounding the book. Time passed, she said, and she retreated from the spotlight. She claimed to be inherently shy and was never comfortable with too much attention. Fame had never meant anything to her, and she was not prepared for what To Kill a Mockingbird achieved.
I felt after reading Shields’ biography that the reason Lee never wrote another novel was because this was the only story she had to tell. But that’s okay – if you only have one, it may as well be the one that wins the Pulitzer.