A Great Book can Transform us by Sandy Semerad

I once heard a teacher say, To Kill a Mockingbird teaches us about equality and has the ability to change us. I believe that’s true.

This great book has certainly changed me, and after I heard the news of Harper Lee’s death at 89, I thought about the power of her masterpiece.

“Did you hear Harper Lee has passed,” I asked Hubby Larry.

“Yes,” he said, and our conversation segued into Lee’s wonderful novel.

“Why did she name it To Kill a Mockingbird?” Larry asked.

“I’ve heard she originally called it, Atticus,” I said, “But she changed the name before it was published. There’s a mockingbird reference in the book.”

“What does it say?”

I had to unearth my copy of Mockingbird to answer his question. Here’s part of the quote, inspiring the title:

“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. ‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ ”

Flipping through the pages, I found myself identifying with the gutsy Scout as I had as a child, and I wished I’d been able to know the author who wrote such a trans-formative novel.

I’ve worked on many projects for the chamber of commerce in Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee’s hometown, for more than 20 years, but somehow we never crossed paths.

A few months ago, I visited the assisted-living facility where Lee resided. I was going to a business meeting there and hoped I’d get a glimpse of the reclusive Lee. As I walked into the facility, a security guard stopped me.

“Who are you here to see?” he asked in a stern voice.

After I told him, he ushered me into the administrator’s office.

As I was leaving, I spotted the guard again. “Do you stop everyone who comes in here?” I asked.

“It’s my job to guard Miss Lee, to make sure she isn’t bothered. You wouldn’t believe the schemes people use. They’ll say or do anything to try to get their books signed or get an interview with Miss Lee.” She rarely ventures outside, he said.

I told him I’d recently read the long-awaited second book, Go Set a Watchman, which features a grown up Scout and a somewhat racially prejudiced Atticus.
I much preferred the inspirational Atticus in Mockingbird, I said. I always cry at the courtroom scene in TKAM. You probably know the one. Atticus Finch is walking out of the courtroom after hearing his client, Tom Robinson, has been found guilty. Scout and her brother Jem are sitting in the balcony, among members of the black community. The Reverend Sykes, a local black leader, tells Scout, “Miss Jean Louise. Stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
Amazing when you think about it, so much talent in such a small Alabama town, population is now around 7,000. I love going there and during my recent trip, my sister Alice Kay, who lives in Idaho, wanted to accompany me.
“I haven’t been to Monroeville in 30 years,” she said. She wanted to tour the town, the courthouse and museum, and we did.
Unfortunately, one of Monroeville’s finest restaurants, the Prop and Gavel, owned by Tanja Carter, Lee’s attorney and friend, was closed, due to the tragic death of Tanja’s husband. He was killed when his single-engine aircraft crashed, taking off from Missoula International Airport in Montana.
“Tanja found the draft of Go Set a Watchman, the parent book of Mockingbird,” I told AK. Alice Kay wanted to read Watchman, so I bought her a copy.
“I want it autographed,” she said.
“That’s impossible,” I told her. “Only Harper Lee’s closest friends are allowed to see her, and she is no longer autographing books.”
At the bookstore, AK and I spotted a signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. The steep price was much more than either of us planned to spend, but I’m sure someone will eventually pay that amount for an autographed copy of this masterpiece that earned a Pulitzer Prize and continues to be a bestseller, second only to the Bible, it has been reported.
The movie adaptation won Academy Awards in 1962. Gregory Peck won for best actor. Lee gave Peck her father’s pocket watch, a friend in Monroeville said.

Lee dedicated Mockingbird to her sister Alice Finch Lee, who lived to be 103, and their father Amasa Lee. He once defended two black men hanged in 1919 for murdering a white shopkeeper in Monroeville.
In 1934, when Nelle Harper Lee was only eight, a black man (Walter Lett) was tried in Monroeville for allegedly raping a white woman. Lett was sentenced to death until a group of progressive white citizens had his ruling reduced to life. The character Tom Robinson in Mockingbird is thought to be patterned after Lett.

Through the years, I’ve heard a few people say they think Truman Capote wrote Mockingbird. These accusations are false, which I discovered after reading Capote’s letters at the Monroe County Courthouse. In one of those letters, Capote writes about Lee authoring the book and compliments her skill as a writer.

It is widely known Lee helped Capote interview and type notes for In Cold Blood. She and Capote were childhood friends in the 1930s. Capote spent his summers with his cousins in a house next to where Lee grew up. (The character Dill in Mockingbird is Capote).

Both houses have since been torn down, but there’s a plaque, marking where Capote stayed. Lee would not allow a plaque on the property where she once lived.

The homes were located about two blocks from the old courthouse, which is now a museum. (The courthouse is in the center of town square).

In memory of Nelle Harper Lee, I’d like to share a few facts about her. She was born in Monroeville on April 28, 1926, the youngest of five children. Her father’s name was Amasa Coleman (A.C.) Lee. Her mother was Frances Cunningham Finch. Amasa, unlike Atticus, was not a widower. Lee’s mother was termed mentally ill. So Harper Lee and her siblings were raised by their father.
Her longtime friend, Truman Capote’s real name was Truman Persons. He was two years older than Lee. Truman spent his summers in Monroeville, and during that time, he and Lee became close friends. Lee’s father recognized Lee’s creativity and gave her an Underwood typewriter.
She earned a degree in English from Huntington College in Montgomery, Alabama and was an exchange student at Oxford for a short while. She attended law school for two years at the University of Alabama, but dropped out to pursue a writing career.

She moved to New York, where Truman Persons, then Capote, had become a well-known writer. While in New York, two of Capote’s friends made it possible for Lee to quit her job as an airline reservations clerk and write full time.

These generous friends–famous Broadway lyricist Michael Brown and his wife, Joy Williams, a ballet dancer–gave Lee a Christmas present, paying all of her expenses for a year to write whatever she wanted, but it took Lee two years to write Mockingbird, I was told. The publisher said it might not sell more than a few thousand copies, but upon publication in July 1960, the book became a best-seller and continues to sell millions each year.

It is estimated she earned and continues to earn royalties of more than $9,000 a day. However, her fortune never influenced her life.

She lived like a spartan. Before she moved into the assisted living facility, she had no air conditioning or television set, until a caretaker demanded them, I was told.

She never married and had no children, but she birthed a great book that I believe changed lives and has certainly inspired me to write, not simply to entertain, but to transform with words. For that I’m thankful.