Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird
It became an instant bestseller, winning the Pulitzer Prize and having a screen adaptation made, which is ranked one of the best of all time. Fifty years after its publication, it still sells nearly a million copies every year. What other book can touch the success of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? Not only does it endure, it still ripples deeply within our culture. In the book that accompanies her upcoming documentary entitled Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird”, filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy explores the timeless resonance of Harper Lee’s classic, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in July. Through thought-provoking interviews, we hear testimony from people like Oprah Winfrey, Rick Bragg and Wally Lamb, who all wax poetic on just why this novel is as important today as the day it was published.
It all started as a simple idea from a simple girl who had ambitions to be the Jane Austen of southern Alabama. Nelle Harper Lee was raised in the small, dusty town of Monroeville, Alabama, the model for Maycomb in MOCKINGBIRD. She grew in the shadow of her commanding father, A.C. Lee, a local attorney who became the prototype for Atticus, who would go on to be chosen the favorite fictional character of all time. Lee took the inspiration around her and molded it into a timeless tale of coming-of-age, overcoming prejudice, and the importance and risk of standing up for what you believe to be right. The young unpublished author from Alabama had simple expectations when she turned in her manuscript: “..I never expected any sort of success with MOCKINGBIRD. I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers.” Fifty years after its publication, it has come to be thought of as our “national novel.” What better story can sum up the fighting American spirit than that of Scout, Atticus, Jem, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley?
Murphy compiles hours of interviews with Lee’s relatives, friends and fans to demonstrate just how this story captured our imaginations and has never let go. Many view it as a tender coming-of-age story about racial injustice. Singer/songwriter Roseanne Cash thinks it functions more like a parenting manual: “There’s just this beautiful naturalness that [Atticus] has and sense of confidence in his own skill as a parent. And respect for the child, that mutual respect.” Rick Bragg, author of ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN’ and an Alabama native himself, saw the novel’s impact on whites, “young men who grew up on the wrong side of the issue that dominates this book. They start reading it, and the next thing you know, it’s not just held their interest, it’s changed their views. That’s almost impossible. But it happens.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Diane McWhorter suggested that perhaps it’s this deftness of hand by Lee that adds to the book’s remarkable run: “…even though TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is such a classic indictment of racism, it’s not really an indictment of the racist, because there’s the recognition that those attitudes were ‘normal’ then. For someone to rebel and stand up against them was exceptional, and Atticus doesn’t take that much pride in doing so, just as he would have preferred not to have to be the one to shoot the mad dog. He simply does what he must do and doesn’t make a big deal about it.”
Since Harper Lee never followed her freshman effort, there was much speculation as to whether or not she could match its success. There was also the theory that childhood friend Truman Capote actually wrote it --- a theory that most dismiss, given the vast differences in their writing styles and Capote’s inability to resist taking credit for something. But according to Alice Finch Lee, she felt that her sister “…couldn’t top what she had done. She told one of our cousins who asked her, ‘I haven’t anywhere to go, but down.” Author James McBride offers his own theory: “She sang the song, she played the solo, and she walked off the stage. And we’re all the better for it. We’re very grateful to her for the amount of love that she’s given us.”
This short volume compiled by Murphy, with a charming forward by Wally Lamb, is chock-full of insightful interviews and musings about one of the most important books of our time. Why has it endured? Crime writer Scott Turow sums it up best when he says “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD tells a tale that we know is still true…We may live, eventually, in a world where that kind of race prejudice is unimaginable. And people may read this story in three hundred years and say, ‘So what was the big deal?’ But the fact of the matter is, in today’s America, it still speaks a fundamental truth.”
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 23, 2011