Looking for Harper Lee
I’ve always had a soft spot for To Kill A Mockingbird. I like its prose and am easily persuaded by its gently nostalgic tone, its depiction of a sleepy Southern town and its nightly routines, neighbours who know one another, a parent who can make a richness of a child’s moral sense. The novel glows with soft light – too soft, some would say – but it yields a hard lesson. Time passes and bad things happen but decency and empathy draw you back. It’s a children’s story, really, not unlike The Railway Children and other daddy-obsessed narratives, but Mockingbird gains power by seeming so deeply hitched, as it might or might not have been, to a social upheaval and a time of change. Atticus Finch was the right everyman for the right time and Gregory Peck was his ideal embodiment.
A week after Labor Day in 1988, when I was twenty years old, I was with some fellow students in a Drive-Away car that we were supposed to be delivering to Los Angeles from Washington. We ignored the prescribed route, and instead drove south, entering Alabama just as Hurricane Florence was making landfall. We were on the 65 from Montgomery when the windscreen wipers started to fail and the radio was telling people in mobile homes to go to the community centres. I remember having a bad idea and a good idea in quick succession. The bad idea was that we stop at the next town for a drink – it turned out to be a dry county – but I made up for it by pointing the car in the direction of Monroeville, some distance away, feeling that Harper Lee’s original small town was sure to be a haven for the destitute and the generally luckless denizens of the earth.
The town was sleepy like the movie and I felt there must be a Boo Radley behind every peeling porch. We found beers and a place that sold things like gumbo and dishes of stew with black beans. And in the morning I went out looking for the mockingbirds and chinaberry trees and Aunt Sooks of legend, but nobody in the gas stations or the 7/11 knew much about writers. When I asked a man in the town square where a person would go if he wanted to call on Harper Lee, he smiled, and said she might be up around the golf club. There was still a lot of dust in the town, and, looking at the courthouse where Lee’s father had plied his trade, it occurred to me that the best characters in fiction are states of mind as much as human beings, and Atticus Finch was a small-town notion of democracy. I bought a hardback copy from a local store and asked the owner if there was anybody left in Monroeville who was like the man in the book. I can still see the bookseller handing me the package and looking out of the storefront window at the sky. ‘It’s like fine weather,’ he said. ‘Just when you think it’s gone you see it’s fixin’ to come back.