Harper Lee

I started this a while ago and never finished it. It’s been bugging me since. Time to get it out there, imperfect as it is a tribute to the author of one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.

Harper Lee passed away this past week. I’ve been talking about writing her a fan letter for … probably 30 (or more) years. And now it is too late. It was one of those things that never was quite important enough to do today, but that was something I wanted to do.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 11 years old. It was the summer before the 6th grade, and I knew it would be required in school that next year. I couldn’t put it down, not that that was unusual for me with books. I remember crying when I came to the ending, not because it was sad, but because I would never have the pleasure of reading this book for the first time again.

I have read that book many times again. Perhaps 40 times or more. When it was assigned during my 6th grade year, the class seemed to make little progress on the book, with irregularly spaced discussions. My memory (perhaps faulty) says that I read the book 18 times during the period in which we were discussing the book, and then earned a D on the final reading comprehension test. My parents had nothing to say on the topic, but a friend’s mother was outraged, and felt this was a gross injustice. It might have been. I probably knew the facts of the plot reasonably well. It might not have been. I am not sure that at the time I truly understood the complexities of the rape accusation or what it said about the accuser, or many other subtleties in the novel. Those have seeped their way into my brain slowly over many years.

Adulthood and modern-day discussions of privilege, racism, and sexism have left me with mixed feelings about this favorite novel of mine. Yet another story with white person as the hero. I see this and I know that partly I am sad because I want to be that white hero, defending the oppressed. I can want this even while recognizing this robs the oppressed of their agency.

And yet. And yet. There is still much in this book to love, and much from it that I learned.

There’s Calpurnia, servant to the Finch family. She takes Scout and Jem with her to church one time when Atticus is gone. During the course of this adventure, Scout asks her,

“Cal,” I asked, “Why do you talk nigger-talk to the— to your folks when you know it’s not right?”

“Well, in the first place I’m black—”

“That doesn’t mean you hafta talk that way when you know better,” said Jem.

Calpurnia tilted her hat and scratched her head, then pressed her hat down carefully over her ears. “it’s right hard to say,” she said. “Suppose you and Scout talked colored-folks’ talk at home. It’s be out of place, wouldn’t it? Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church and with my neighbors? They’d think I was puttin’ on airs to beat Moses.”

“But Cal, you know better,” I said.

“It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike—in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ’em You’re not going to change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut and talk their language.”

Emphasis mine. Those words of Calpurnia are what started to teach my arrogant little know-it-all self to start pulling back and not having to show off everything I know. There’s a difference between being right and being kind. It started me thinking about meeting people where they are, instead of trying to force them to meet me where I thought they should be.

There’s the sharp-tongued neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, who gave me another view of the woman I wanted to become. I want Miss Maudie’s generous spirit and incredibly sharp tongue. This is one of few portrayals of women’s efficacious and righteous anger. Miss Maudie is able to put people in their place with a single comment — a power I desperately wish I had. Her command of scripture is formidable, and she is able to use it to deflect the foot-washing Baptists who might criticize her yard. Yet she is generous to the children, taking Scout seriously unless Scout intends to be funny, honoring their experience and helping them see a world broader and more complicated than others portray it.

True enough, she had an acid tongue in her head, and she did not go about the neighborhood doing good, as did Miss Stephanie Crawford. But while no one with a grain of sense trusted Miss Stephanie, Jem and I had considerable faith in Miss Maudie. She never told on us, had never played cat-and-mouse with us, she was not at all interested in our private lives. She was our friend.

There’s also the incredible craftsmanship of the writing, where one large story is told by the intricate interweaving of a thousand small stories. I open this book again and again and marvel at the seamless complexity of its plot and subplots, down to a few sentences in a half paragraph on any page you might open the book to.

These are the reasons that I owed Harper Lee that letter I will never send. So that, perhaps, she would read this from me, and know how much her book has meant to me for the past 35 years. Rest in peace Harper Lee. Few will ever hold a candle to the mastery of craft you displayed in your writing, and I will always treasure the delight of reading what you wrote.

The Best Book You’ve Ever Read?

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the question, “What is the best book you’ve ever read?” Or, what are your favorite books? The books that really stick with people as favorites tend to be exceptional.

I posted a “name this novel” on Facebook:

I suppose it is because I have lived a rather restricted life myself that I have found so much enjoyment in remembering what I have learned in these last years about brave people and strange scenes. I have sat here day after day this winter, sleeping a good deal in my chair, hardly knowing if I was in London or the Gulf Country, dreaming of blazing sunshine, of poddy dodging and black stockriders, of Cairns and Green Island. Of a girl that I met forty years too late and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again that holds so much of my affection.

I was surprised that not one of my friends answered it.

The quote is from A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. A reviewer wrote, “Probably more people have shed tears over the last page of A Town Like Alice than about any other novel in the English language.” I do, every time.

Alice, originally published in 1950 under the title The Legacy in the United Kingdom, is a Second World War history, a romance, and an adventure novel all wrapped up in 277 pages. And don’t let the fact that it is part romance deter male readers; you will not regret picking this one up.

The story opens in the 1930s when solicitor Noel Strachan is called to rewrite the will of a client into a trust for his nephew or niece. Then we move to the post-war years, when the client has died, and Noel must track down his surviving heir. Jean Paget, anonymous short-hand typist, comes in to quite a bit of money. And what does she want to do with it? She wants to go back to the far east, to Malaysia, to build a well.

(Let me warn you now that there are some “spoilers” in what I write next, though I hardly think of them that way. The beauty of this novel is not in how it surprises you. It is in how the story turns whether you are reading it for the first time or for the tenth. But just in case, let me insert a photo so you have a chance to turn away now.)


And thus we enter the first part of the novel which is Jean’s experiences during the war years, as a prisoner of the Japanese, marched from place to place with a group of women and children. Half their number die out on the roads. Along the way, she meets an Australian prisoner, Joe Harman, a cowboy/cattle rancher, who steals to help the group of women, for which he is eventually tortured and killed.

After Jean gets to Malayasia and builds the well, she discovers that Joe has lived, grievously wounded, perhaps permanently crippled. She heads to Australia to find him.

Meanwhile, guess who shows up in Noel Strachan’s office looking for her?

The final third of the novel is the story of how Jean goes about trying to make the remote outback town where Joe lives into a suitable place for a woman to live, stay, and raise a family.

I have spent the winter writing down this story … And, having finished it, it seems to me that I have been mixed up in things far greater than I realized at the time.

The beauty of this novel is in how Shute makes it happen. He writes about ordinary people who have an extra-ordinary sense of right and wrong. They simply go forth and do the job that is in front of them to do.

If you are a fan of World War Two lore, you may, rightly, object that women prisoners were never marched from place to place in Malaysia. In the words of Nevil Shute himself:

…and this is true. It happened in Sumatra.

After the conquest of Malaya in 1942, the Japanese invaded Sumatra and quickly took the island. A party of about eighty Dutch women and children were collected in the vicinity of Padang. The local Japanese commander was reluctant to assume responsibility for these women, and, to solve his problem, marched them out of his area; so began a trek all round Sumatra which lasted for two and a half years. At the end of this vast journey less than thirty of them were still alive.

In 1949 I stayed with Mr. and Mrs. J. G. Geysel-Vonck in Palembang in Sumatra. Mrs. Geysel had been a member of the party. When she was taken prisoner she was a slight, pretty girl of twenty-one, recently married; she had a baby six months old, and a very robust sense of humour. In the years that followed, Mrs. Geysel marched over twelve hundred miles carrying her baby, in circumstances similar to what I have described. She emerged from this fantastic ordeal undaunted, and with her son fit and well.

I do not think I have ever before turned to real life for an incident in one of my novels. If I have done so now it is because I have been unable to resist the appeal of this true story, and because I want to pay what tribute is within my power to the most gallant lady I have ever met.