This is a book of interviews conducted across the spectrum of race, gender, geographical location, occupation, and age, with people who have one thing in common — To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee meant something profound to them personally, as well as on a social and literary level.
Mary McDonagh Murphy tells us that the germ of this project came one day while sitting on her back porch rereading Mockingbird for the third time. It is a book to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Mockingbird and each interview is unique. Oh, sure, there is more than one who loved Scout and wanted to be Scout; more than one wanted a dad like Atticus with that amazing sense of intuitive parenting, and belief in justice that he would take on an unpopular case knowing he would lose no matter how positively he proved his client innocent; more than one who, when reading as a 10-, 11-, 12-year-old boy, identified with Jem but was impacted by the beauty and grace of the writing. But each one had a personal experience with the book that influenced their beliefs, attitudes, relationships, and a life-long love of reading. Many of them were inspired to become authors, many of them from the South.
There is a wonderful Forward by Wally Lamb who taught for many years and began publishing his own novels in 1992, and has conducted writing workshops in maximum-security prisons. He is one of the interviewed Southern authors. Then, Part I is where Mary Murphy talks about Mockingbird, the reading of it, the writing in it and people who criticize the writing in it, the characters, the relevance of the book today, Harper Lee, and some gems from various interviews published herein.
Part II is the interviews. Wally Lamb wasn’t a reader in his teens. He had a school book report coming up and “had already read the shortest books [he knew]”. His sister’d “been yapping about this novel that she had just read that she’d liked”, so he picked it up and, for the first time, realized that literature could “kidnap” you. When he became a high school teacher, he decided to try it with his kids and “it cast the same spell for [his] students as it had for [him]. Later on, when he began writing “to explore what you need to explore”, he came to the conclusion that that was what Harper Lee had been doing.
You start with who and what you know. You take a survey of the lay of the land that formed you and shaped you. And then you begin to lie about it. You tell one lie that turns into a different lie. And after awhile, those models sort of lift off and become their own people. . .
And when you weave an entire network of lies, what you’re really doing. . . is, by telling lies you are trying to arrive at a deeper truth. Your work is no longer factual, but it’s true. It’s true not only for you and your own experience, your singular experience, but it also hopefully becomes true for other people.
There’s Oprah’s wonderful retelling of her own experience of how Mockingbird was the first book she started pushing on everyone she met. She had borrowed it from the library on the librarian’s recommendation; she was too poor to be able to purchase books. Although she left the South when she was 6 and never personally experienced segregation, she “always recognized that life would have been so different for [her] had [she] been raised in a segregated environment”. She liked the movie (not everyone interviewed did), and when she found herself seated to next Gregory Peck at a Hollywood luncheon for Quincy Jones, she could only think of him as Atticus and kept asking him about Scout.
You just liked Scout. You connected with her. I liked her energy. I liked the spirit of her. I liked the freshness of her. I liked the fact that she was so curious. I loved this character so much. . . she knew who she was and was very assertive and had a lot of confidence and believed in herself and was learning about this whole world of racism in such a way that I could feel myself also experiencing or learning about it — my eyes opening as her eyes were opening to it.
Of course, later in life, she wanted the book for her wildly popular Book Club, and although she wasn’t able to get Harper Lee to come on her show, she did enjoy the privilege of having lunch with her in NYC, and talks about what a special time she enjoyed with her. When Oprah opened her school in South Africa, people wanted to contribute and asked what they could bring. Her response? “Bring [your] favourite book”; and now, they “probably have a hundred copies of this book”. Each person who brought it wrote inside the cover about why it was an important book to them. Each one says something totally different.
Once again, I’ve been introduced to authors I’ve not heard of before and am impressed enough to want to purchase books written by them. Lee Smith (The Last Girls (2002) and On Agate Hill (2008) and 10 others when she was interviewed) caught me by surprise. Born in Grundy, Virginia, what she calls “the mountain South”, she has a totally different experience: there were no blacks where she lived. Their class system was based on who lived “in the town and who lived in the hollers”, but the South described in Mockingbird fascinated her. For her, it brought a “whole new awareness of people who were other, and what they suffered because of it. . . [it] changed the way [she] thought about race, class, and discrimination”. She also talked about the novel being banned by the Hanover County school board because a prominent physician had said it was inappropriate for children to read because of the rape issue. She was working for a Richmond, Va, newspaper at the time which had said,
any child who wanted a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird should write him a personal letter and tell him why, and we would send them one. Well, I was the one who sent ’em. . . and basically all I did was address copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and send them out to every child in Hanover County. I thought it was fabulous . . . I was proud to be doing this.
Just about in the middle of this book is an interview granted by Alice Finch Lee, Nelle’s older sister. She tells quite a bit of family history and how she didn’t really relate to her sister until they were both adults. She always refers to her sister as Nelle Harper. She tells her impressions of Truman Capote and how everyone in Monroeville thought they were in the book and that people from other small towns thought that Maycomb was based on their town.
There were many other interviews with people who impressed me with their experiences of reading Mockingbird and gave profound insights into the novel, but the final one in the book, I thought, was the most enlightening. Andrew Young, former US ambassador to the UN, former congressman from Georgia, and former mayor of Atlanta, never read the book. Just as he couldn’t read Richard Wright, had a hard time with Roots and The Diary of Anne Frank, couldn’t read big books on the Holocaust. He couldn’t deal with them emotionally. “They made [him] too bitter”. He had “no intellectual curiosity” about Mockingbird — he’d “been through it with [his] life”. He talks about his experiences with the civil rights movement, and before that, as a minister in Thomasville, Georgia, where he was asked to run “a voter registration drive to encourage people to vote for Eisenhower”. When he asked why, he was told that Eisenhower would “appoint judges . . . of integrity and the most intelligent people in the South. And he will listen to us”. He cites instances where Eisenhower appointees supported the civil rights movement, upheld the Constitution, supported desegregation, and protected the right of blacks to march. He called these judges Atticus Finches. He says that To Kill a Mockingbird
gave us hope that justice could prevail. . . that’s one of the things that makes it a great story — [it] was an act of protest, but it was [also] an act of humanity. It was saying that we’re not all like this. There are people who rise above their prejudices and even above the law.
I learned a lot of things I didn’t know before about history and people, and about the different reasons people read this book many times and always take away something new that is uniquely theirs. It’s not about searching for Harper Lee, or controversy about Go Set A Watchman; it’s about real people sharing their personal, deep feelings about an amazing book and how it impacted a country at exactly the right time in history. * * * * *