Remembering Harper Lee

HARPER LEE

I read To Kill A Mockingbird in the fifth grade. It was my first proper ‘grown up’ book. Prior to that I spent all my free time reading Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume books. On my more sophisticated days I read Madeleine l’Engle and the Chronicles of Narnia series. There’s nothing wrong with those authors, only to say I rarely ventured out of the children’s genre, which is fair, as I was still just a child. Being an only child stuck in a house full of adults who I had nothing in common with turned me into a bookworm. We had no cable TV and so my only entertainment was to read.

I not only read To Kill A Mockingbird, I comprehended and understood it. Every single page of it. I understood the message the author was trying to portray. That book was my first introduction and foray into the post-bellum society and what life was like after slavery for black people. I wasn’t shocked nor was I ignorant of it, but I reveled in the details of the book. On how a hot Alabama summer day smells and feels like, you can almost feel the arid air as you read the book. On how black and white people lead parallel and separate lives whilst living side by side in a small town like Maycomb, exchanging polite nods from across the street. An old Chinese idiom comes to mind, “the waters from the river do not coincide with the water from the well”, you mind your own business and I mind mine and we’ll all get along just fine. Lee painted a picture of an idyllic childhood with her father, her brother, her friend, Boo Radley, her church, Calpurnia their black maid but alongside that idyll is another reality. The stark life under the oppression of the Jim Crow south. How black families, especially black men had to keep their heads down and tip their hat to white men and women to avoid trouble. Any wrong turn or look can cause a black man to be lynched or in the story of the book, be charged with rape.

Harper Lee’s book was my initiation from strictly reading children’s books into serious adult books. When I was able to finish nearly 400 pages of single spaced small type print of a novel, I was ready to tackle the other adult books. Though I had no idea about the biography or the history of Harper Lee when I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I had an inkling that she was borrowing from her own life and woven it into fiction. I learned from reading the book that most writers, fiction writers borrow events, people, emotions from their own lives and weave them into the stories they tell. Reading this book was also an early exercise in writing. How to tell a story, how to link the events and details of a story together to which it makes sense. A good writer will know which details are necessary and which are superfluous. It also helped the protagonist of this story is a young girl, around the same age as myself. I also comprehended the adage, to be a good writer is to read prolifically.

When I read a book I like, the next thing I do immediately after is to read a biography about the author. I did this with Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote (a childhood friend of Harper Lee), William Burroughs, the Romantic poets, everyone. Their lives informed their work. I sought to find out everything I could about Harper Lee the woman and to my surprise there’s not much to be found. She lived a life of an affluent gentle-woman, from the proceeds of her phenomenally successful book, which has never been out of print since it was first published in 1961. Because it is required reading in schools, To Kill A Mockingbird still sells over one million copies a year. She won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1962 and in 1963 her book was adapted into a film by the same name, with Gregory Peck starring as Atticus Finch. She was very happy with the outcome of the movie – a rarity for a book author. She gave no interviews after the initial publication and shunned all publicity after. When she was given an award, she graciously thanked the audience whilst collecting her award without elaborating further on her life’s seminal work. Everyone who loves her work tried to get an interview with her, including Oprah Winfrey. She politely declined Oprah too, saying that everything she wanted to say publicly has already been expressed in her book. She was not prone to succumbing to the flattery of others and granting interviews, written or televised.

I am not here to review her work, they speak for itself.  I am simply here pay homage to a woman who inspired me to read more and write, and to always work on my craft, to “throw away” most of what I write, only to start over.

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