Few things in life are simple.
At first, it was a legend written so perfectly. If she had tried, she couldn't have written it more perfectly.
The story seems simple on the surface A woman grows up in a small Alabama town, the daughter of a lawyer and a mother who, apparently, suffered from bipolar disorder. She is the youngest of four children. She had an older sister who becomes, herself, a prominent lawyer in Alabama and lived to the age of 103.
Contrary to reports, it would appear she is not a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. But let us continue with the story.
Working in dead end jobs, she writes a book. An editor works with her, and after much hard work and rewriting, it is published in 1960. The book is an immediate classic. It wins the Pulitzer Prize. It is made into a hit movie.
In the years after it was published, it is called the book that unites Americans. It is read and enjoyed year after year. It becomes required reading in many high school classes, including in Alabama.
People name their children after the main characters: Atticus, Scout.
We all know that books can, and have changed the world.
Many authors can aspire to be the writers of one of those books. Few succeed.
The author becomes a recluse, rarely giving interviews. She spends her life in that small Alabama town. Her sister, the lawyer, becomes her spokesperson.
She was so protective of her privacy she would rarely give interviews. She never published another book.
Her story was neatly tied up and presented to an adoring public. It made sense-if you write a classic as your first book, how can you follow with something even better?
The book, which took place in the Alabama of the 1930's (during the Depression), can be enjoyed on so many levels. On the simplest level, it's the coming-of-age story of a young girl being raised, with her brother, by a single father, a lawyer. He takes on the case of a black man accused of raping a white girl. Her life is changed forever.
And then, last year, it all changed. An announcement was made that there was a second book - and it would be published later in the year. It was a sequel to the first book, the American classic. But, once the first chapter was released, many people were stunned. The book, many believe, was actually an early draft of the classic. And, still others believed that the author, then in her late 80's, was being taken advantage of. She was, after all, in assisted living, having suffered a stroke almost 10 years ago. She was said to have been nearly deaf and blind.
The neatly tied box of the author's life reopened. Things were no longer neat and clean. Her literacy legacy would now be complex. Perhaps it always was - we just liked to hear the legend we had become used to hearing.
Yesterday, the author died.
I am talking, of course, of an 89 year old woman, Nelle Harper Lee, of that small town in Alabama. Harper Lee, as she was known to the world, has left a complicated legacy. (I suspect it may get even more complicated in the coming days. We'll see.)
All of us who write hope to write THE BOOK, the book that will change the world for the better.
What we don't realize is that the book changes us just as much.
But still, I can wish to write that book one day.
In the meantime, I will content myself with my love of To Kill a Mockingbird. (And if you wonder, why the title, it is explained in the book like this to the main character, the young girl Scout:
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 but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their
hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
And one more thing. If you enjoy the comic strip "Bloom County", and read it on Facebook in its current incarnation, you can partially thank Harper Lee for its revival. Just for that one fact, I would love her. Berke Breathed even published her letter on Facebook yesterday - it was wonderful.
Do you also mourn the death of Harper Lee?