MAY / JUNE 2012: BY VERONICA LEIGH
UPON A FIRST perusal of To Kill a Mockingbird, one might believe Jean Louise Finch, known as Scout, is an ordinary girl growing up in Alabama during the Depression.
A tomboy, yes, but still fairly typical. Freckled with a page boy haircut, she wears bibs, runs around with her brother Jem and befriends a little boy named Dill. They spend the summer exploring, playing games and spying on the Radley house, where the infamous Boo Radley resides.
It isn’t until her father Atticus represents Tom Robinson that she is given their first dose of reality. In her innocent mind good always triumphs over evil but she comes to realize in life that isn’t always the case. By now, the reader is awakened to the fact that this is no ordinary coming of age novel. Many stories featuring young adults follow the hero or heroine through various escapades and lessons, but rarely do they let the protagonist be the audience’s eyes and ears into a world of racial hatred and prejudice. As To Kill a Mockingbird progresses, when evil prevails over good, Tom Robinson is sacrificed for the benefit of social order, and Atticus fails, Scout understands that all is not lost. Some of her childlike innocence has faded away, but the world is changing and the truth will not always be stifled.
Close to the end of the book the villain ambushes Jem and Scout and tries to revenge himself on Atticus by harming his children. But Maycomb’s notorious recluse, Boo Radley, rescues them and carries an injured Jem to the Finch home. Insightful as always, Scout concludes that to shine a light on what Boo did would be like killing a mockingbird. The reader, too, can now see both Tom Robinson and Boo Radley were harmless, beautiful mockingbirds. One was slain and the other one was set free.
Nelle Harper Lee grew up in a home somewhat similar to Scout Finch’s. Her father, Amasa, was an attorney like Atticus and to the chagrin of many in 1923 he represented an African-American man. Naturally, he did not win. Nelle was a scrappy tomboy, she had an older brother and a good friend named Truman, who was later the inspiration for Dill. Given a typewriter, Nelle and Truman (who was given the last name Capote by his stepfather, and went on to become a famous writer) spent hours crafting stories. By adulthood, expecting to follow in her father’s and older sister Alice’s footsteps, Nelle studied law for a little while. But unfulfilled, she was compelled to leave law school and move to New York, where she was determined to become a successful writer.
On Christmas of 1956, as a guest in the home of a family friend, Nelle was presented with a year’s worth of wages so she could quit her job and write full time. She soon reconnected with her friend Truman, managed to secure an agent and after two and a half years of devotion, she finished To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1959 when a tragic murder of a family occurred, Nelle accompanied Truman to Kansas to research the crime and assisted him in writing In Cold Blood. His book is dedicated to her.
In the summer of 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was released. It instantly became a best seller and what we now consider a great American classic. Not only that, it won the coveted Pulitzer Prize and was swiftly transferred to the silver screen. The unforgettable characters of Scout, Atticus, Jem, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are immortalized on screen and in literature and will continue to make a lasting impression on future generations. Nelle wrote and published a few essays and in 1964 gave her final interview to the public. She said her aim was to be “the Jane Austen of south Alabama.” Ever since, with the exception of receiving awards, she has remained withdrawn from public life.
Nelle Harper Lee may have wished to have been the Jane Austen of south Alabama, but she more than surpassed that dream with her work. Through Scout Finch she will reside forever in our hearts and minds. ♥
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Leigh is an aspiring novelist, who lives in Indiana with her family and six furbabies. Her obsessions range from Jane Austen to the Holocaust to the TV show Once Upon a Time. She has published two short autobiographical pieces and hopes to see more in print. She also lurks on her blog.