Friday, July 09, 2010

She’s no Nelle

Andrew Smith was 13 when he first read ‘To kill a Mockingbird’ and says it was the first book he really loved. It was written fifty years ago, won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold over 30 million copies. Nelle Harper Lee born in 1926 wrote it as Harper Lee, as her sister explained ‘She didn’t want be called Nelle and believe me - she’s no Nelle.’

A private person, she was a ghostly presence when Andrew visited her home town - Monroeville in Alabama hoping to interview her for his documentary commemorating the 50th anniversary of the book. We meet friends and relatives but the closest we get to Lee herself is a large slice of cake which is about to be delivered to her by a friend at the party Andrew has given to return some of the famous southern hospitality he enjoyed. But the ghostly presence knew exactly what was happening on a daily basis and it was clear that permission had been given for friends to talk to him.

Although Lee denies the story is autobiographical it is told by ‘Scout’ a young tomboy having adventures with her brother Jem and best friend Dill who is said to be based on her friend and neighbour Truman Capote. Scout’s father is a lawyer and Lee’s father was a newspaper editor and a lawyer. I remember being entranced when I saw the film in the sixties and having seen it again this week I long to read the book which even now is winging its way to me, courtesy of Amazon.

After all the publicity and the success of the book people wondered why she never wrote another. But why would you? How do you follow that?

An important part of the story is the white lawyer – Scout’s father, defending a black man, falsely accused of rape and failing to convince the white jury of his innocence. Although Atticus feels they have a strong chance of winning an appeal it ends in tragedy. The other main thread is when the children are in mortal danger from the evil father of the girl who lied about the alleged rape. Boo the strange recluse shunned by most of the townsfolk appears in the forest and saves their lives.

In the film Gregory Peck is just right as Atticus – the father of Scout and all the cast - especially the children are totally believable. The strange eerie character of Boo is played by a young Robert Duvall.

Andrew remembered that his parents had been shocked in the fifties when they took a Greyhound bus to the south from New York and witnessed the segregation and racial discrimination that existed then. Many years later, on his own visit he stayed with a white family and a black family and found that although they were no longer segregated much of Alabama was still separated.

It seems to me the book is about the best and the worst of human beings and although much has changed since then ignorance, intolerance and prejudice still exist everywhere.

I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house. And that he'd rather I'd shoot at tin cans in the backyard, but he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted, if I could hit 'em, but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird...Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat people's gardens, don't nest in the corncribs, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.~

Atticus Finch

When a school tried to ban her book Lee had this to say:

Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board's activities, and what I've heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is "immoral" has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice

You have to admire her.


OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

I deeply admire Harper Lee, and "To Kill A Mocking Bird" is such a stellar book, Sublime, really.
I LOVED the movie and agree with you that everyone in it is superb--Particularly Gregory Peck. There is a story that Harper Lee visited the "set" while they were filming and gave Gregory Peck her father's watch to use in the film, she felt he was so perfect as "Atticus"...There is another performance that is never talked about, at all, and that is of The Narrator---KIM STANLEY. She is Brilliant in what she does, speaking as the grown-up Scout, looking back at that time in her young life....At the very end she has a speech about 'that summer and fall' and it ends with what Boo Radley gave Jem and Scout...she mentions the things they found objects, etc., and ends the speech with, "...and he gave us our lives." It brings tears to my eays as I write this. There was such a depth to that Narration that only a GREAT GREAT Actress could bring...And Kim Stanley did that, in Spades, as they ay.
Also Robert Duvall as Boo, was so very memorable. He never says one word but his presence and his understanding of who Boo was, was great great acting, too.

There is a documentary about Gregory Peck made by his daughter---I think you would love it Pat....I'm not sure if it is available on DVD, but if it is really worth a "look-see". I love that you wrote about this book and this film.

Also....the film has a BEAUTIFUL Musical score, that adds so much to establishing the atmosphere and place, etc. Really memorable in every way.
Great Film, and a GREAT GREAT Book!

mapstew said...

To my shame I have yet to read this wonder (sorry UB!). It's going to the top of the pile. Thanks Pat. :¬)


The Unbearable Banishment said...

That book saved my life. I'd still be slaving in a factory in Cleveland if it hadn't lifted me up. I hope you don't mind but here's a link to a post I did about how "To Kill a Mockingbird" introduced me to reading fairly late in life, the note of thanks I sent to Harper Lee and her elegant response.

Pat said...

Naomi: thank for that marvelous comment and for filling in my gaps. BTW I forgot to say that Gregory Peck's grandson is named after Harper Lee. I would love to see the documentary and also now I want to see the film again and again and again.

Mapstew: a pleasure for both of us to come I think. Many of the quotes are familiar they are so memorable.

UB: isn't it fantastic when a book can do that. Long live books! And bless you for the link.

Scarlet Blue said...

I haven't read it either. Shame on me. It's on my list though.

Pat said...

Scarlet: how sad it would be if there were no more wonderful books for us to read.

mapstew said...

@UB; Jinx! We posted at exactly the same time. :¬)

R. Sherman said...

Every summer the people of the town where Lee lives put on a production of the story at an outdoor theater. It's a big deal with everyone vying for the parts. Great book and great movie adaptation.


lom said...

I read it when I was around 13, it made such an impacted on me then, I never knew people could be like that. From an early age I was taught to accept people as people so never saw colour or disability.

Pat said...

Mapstew: I thought it was odd your comment was ahead of his. I've learnt not to worry my silly little head about strange happenings:)

Randall: I wonder if the author attends?

LOM: that was a great grounding you had.

kenju said...

It is, of course, a classic over here, and anyone who hasn't read it yet should do so immediately!!

Why Lee never wrote another book is a mystery, and maybe it is a good thing. If she had, and it didn't come up to the promise of the first - we'd all be devastated (as would she).

Pat said...

Judy: I think she said everything worth saying in Mockingbird.
I've just heard from Amazon my copy is on its way. Blogging has certainly revived my reading habits and is my main extravagance these days. If you have time do follow the link in Unbearable Banishment's comment. It is quite moving.

angryparsnip said...

I have to say there must be something wrong with me as I just couldn't get into this book and I never had any desire to see the movie.
Maybe I tried to read it at a time in my life when I wasn't receptive ? but for some reason I put it down and never picked it up again.
That said, daughter loves the book and movie.
How weird am I... maybe after reading how this book changed a life, I should give it another try.
We shall see.

cheers, parsnip

Pat said...

Parsnip: if you do give it another go do please tell me how you find it this time around.
There are countless books which have a vast following and that I have never been able to get beyond the first page.

Eryl Shields said...

I haven't, to my knowledge (but my memory is appalling!), seen the film. But I LOVE the book. It's one of my very favourites, a comfort book to reread again every year or so, or when life is feeling a little overbearing. And I agree, Pat, that Lee said what was on her mind perfectly so never needed to write another thing: she got it right first time!

Love the anecdote about the school, btw.

Now I need to hunt out the DVD.

Pat said...

Eryl; if you find the DVD please let me know the title so I can try to get one. It's not something we are familiar with. Poor old souls!

Madame DeFarge said...

I read it all the time when I was young and loved the film too. The book made me laugh and cry. It will be forever one of my favourites.

Maggie said...

There was a special on this during CBS Sunday Morning today. She refused to take part in the fuss, and I don't blame her. Imagine tho, if she kept writing despite us all. :)

Pat said...

Madame D: I always suspected I had a deprived childhood - better late than never:)

Maggie: celebrations of the anniversary are popping up all over the place. How marvellous would it be to write something that affects people all over the world and have Gregory Peck as a friend as a bonus.

Luna said...

Hi Pat. I loved this when I first read it back in Form Two in High School. It's a great book to study as a teenager (even if you weren't too fond of your Literature teacher). As a student I saw the movie that year. Great performances.
In my twenties, I bought the book again, to read it just for pleasure and I still have that copy. :)

Pat said...

Luna: Mockingbird seems to be everywhere just now. There were excerpts on TV tonight on a programme about the South.
I shall be so glad to have my very own copy - any day now. A very special book.

BrightenedBoy said...

It's wonderful how this book resonates even across the Atlantic. I read it in ninth grade and loved it.

Pat said...

BB: I've just received my copy and I think it's a book I shall treasure.

rashbre said...

A great book and thank you for reminding me about it and the storyline. The Lee letter to the School Board is a classic. I've not seen this before but it but shows Lee's strength of character and wit (especially in the historical context).

Pat said...

Rashbre: just discovered that my granddaughter has been studying it for A levels.
It was a gem of a letter wasn't it?

Nea said...

I read it for O level, and still have my copy of it 30 years on. It's falling to pieces, I've literally loved it to bits, but hopefully it's still up for another re-read.

Pat said...

Nea: I wonder if your girls would enjoy it. I was always disappointed when my granddaughters didn't rave about 'Little Women' for instance.

Guyana-Gyal said...

She couldn't find a publisher so she had to self publish.

This book is one of my favourite for several reasons.

Pat said...

GG; so many great writers did this in the first instance and it is an increasingly attractive option now you can do an online print-on-demand which Kim told me about.