By Angela Shepherd
Last week, author Harper Lee passed away. She was 89 years old.
She was known for her novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was released in 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, and not long after that was adapted into a film and starred the likes of Robert Duvall and Gregory Peck, the latter as Scout and Jem’s beloved father, Atticus Finch.
It is a novel that has more than stood the test of time, and still holds a special place in the hearts of a lot of us who first read it in our teen years. Even though that first reading likely began as an arduous chore, it blossomed into something else, something appreciated.
I was maybe a sophomore or junior in high school when I first read the novel. Right now, there’s a copy in my purse because I recently picked it up again to read. It is just one of those books that sticks with you, no matter how long ago you last read it. It is one that everyone should have in their literary arsenal.
The book as a whole frightened me. It was a vivid showing, a flung-open portal to a way of life I know nothing about firsthand. In parts it was dark and difficult, and it made me think about what I know about humanity, and it made me think about courage, too.
The novel is about injustice, ignorance, prejudice, and innocence lost. It is about family, growing up, and doing what is right even if you are going to lose. I’ve read it more than once by now, but that novel left its mark on me after the first time.
To this day, the name Boo Radley and the other characters of the book come up in my mind often. You see, one of the best things about reading is that picture that begins to form in the reader’s mind as the words unfold on the pages, and the mental images deepen into real things, tangible objects.
For me, as I read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Boo Radley’s house began to take the form of a home at the end of my grandparents’ street, a brick home perched atop a hill. To this day, every single time I drive by it I mutter under my breath, “Boo Radley’s house,” and I’m whisked back into the novel. And the first dog I had when I was out on my own I named Scout, after Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the novel’s protagonist.
That is the thing about a great book, once it has left its mark it never leaves you be.
And from what I have read about Lee, the book is a story out of her own childhood.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was written in a time of immense social unrest, where a black man in the South accused of anything didn’t stand a chance of being found innocent, even if that is what he was. Lee put forth a story where a white Alabama attorney in the 1930s courageously defends his client, a black man accused of raping a white woman, and it was bold, I think.
The book preceded an act of Congress, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which began to unravel but good the long-standing Jim Crow Laws and ended segregation in public places and prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
We live in a vastly different time, but we are not that far removed from the troubles of that time, the turbulence erupting from the stark contrasts of black and white and the legal lines meant to keep them apart.
And Ms. Lee wrote about it, and based it in the South. But that is as it should be, as the book would not have been the same if it were placed anywhere else but in the boiling pot of racial tensions in the sweltering heat of the segregated South.
Ms. Lee was born in Monroeville, Ala., in 1926 and that is where she died, too, on Feb. 19, 2016.
The South is what she knew, and the racial tensions that were part and parcel of growing up in that part of the country is what she knew, too.
Since the first publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was Lee’s first, there was not another release of her work until 2015 with “Go Set a Watchman.” I don’t know about that one, as I have not read it, though it was met with much controversy.
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch tells Jem, “Real courage is … when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
The novel is not candy-coated for easy consumption. It is an evocative telling of a time when prejudice was as accepted and as practiced as church on Sunday.
I have often thought that it wasn’t just Lee’s characters that are brave, but her, too. It makes me wonder, will I ever be that brave? I certainly hope so.
Reach Angela Shepherd at 937-393-3456, ext. 1681, or on Twitter @wordyshepherd.