This is a good example of the way reading one book leads to an interest in other authors, other stories, new books, and yet more authors. It took me a long time to discover Harper Lee and begin to appreciate the amazing book that brought southern racism to the fore at the most opportune time in history. Since reading about the revelation (and incredible furor and consequent controversy) of Go Set a Watchman, I’ve been pretty much immersed in everything Harper Lee I can get my hands on.
Yesterday I started reading Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird by documentary writer, director, producer, and contributor to various newspapers and news magazines Mary McDonagh Murphy. It is a book of interviews with various friends of Harper Lee, people involved in the making of the movie, Alabama authors, Southern authors, teachers, and journalists about their reactions to and memories of To Kill a Mockingbird, interviews that were incorporated in the 2012 documentary Murphy produced for PBS. One of the people whose comments are included is Alabaman author Mark Childress who won the Harper Lee Award of the University of Alabama in 2014.
After reading his remarks here, I sought out some of his work online and was able to download two of his books, one a novel, and the other this book which contains two essays. The first is titled, “Looking for Harper Lee” and was written in 1993, as Mark says, “when Miss Lee was still hiding from the public”; the other is called “Something in the water” and is adapted from his remarks on the occasion of accepting the Harper Lee Award. Both essays are charming.
In the first, he talks about his first introduction to Mockingbird, which was a signed first edition he read the summer he turned 9, as he sat on the swing on the front porch of Miss Wanda and Mister Fred Biggs in Monroeville, Alabama. He tells his own impressions of the novel and how it impacted his life. What did he think?
I believe that Harper Lee’s charming story was in fact a work of subversive literature, a popular book that did more to change white Southern attitudes about issues of race than any other work of art in this century.
Then, he explains what impressed him about the writing, and finally looks at it with hindsight. Then, he talks about Nelle Harper Lee herself as “one of America’s great literary recluses . . . as invisible to her fans as Boo Radley was to the people of Maycomb”. I loved how he described his attempts to gain an interview with her. I won’t tell you how that turned out; it might surprise you.
In the second essay, he talks about Alabama writers, of whom there are many (introducing me to some I’m going to have to follow up on), and of course, talks about Miss Harper Lee. It’s a sweet tribute to her — about how much current Alabama writers owe Miss Lee for her beautiful example. What he didn’t know when he wrote this essay was that he would get to meet her briefly after the ceremony. That probably meant more to him than the award.
This book is short — fast and easy to read. It’s well written and I found his observations about Mockingbird truly interesting. I think any fan of Mockingbird and Harper Lee would enjoy reading Mark’s essays. * * * *
The other book by Childress that I hope to read one day soon is called Georgia Bottoms: A Novel. I’ll let you know how it goes.