Monroeville's Mockingbird

Art Meripol
The cast of the play, held in and around the town courthouse
50 Years after the debut of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s Alabama hometown celebrates (carefully) the book that made it famous. Article: Mike Wilson

You have been in this courtroom before. If you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, you stood here. You felt the sweltering heat in the pews when Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson. You huddled with Jem and Scout on the balcony and saw their father loosen his tie and speak quiet, honest words to a jury as the town—and in a way, the world—stood watching.

You were there—we were all there—when the verdict came in.

Standing on this gumwood floor, looking into that jury box, it’s hard not to be awestruck. This room, re-created so faithfully in the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck, helped inspire the novel that got the South talking about fairness at a time when it was essential that we do so.

***

To Kill a Mockingbird was published 50 years ago as of July 2010, and Monroeville, Alabama, is throwing an anniversary celebration July 8-11. They’ll give tours of the historic downtown, stage a marathon reading, and auction off a signed copy. They’ll do it all cautiously out of respect for (and maybe a little fear of) the town’s most famous resident: Nelle Harper Lee.

Author of a book that has sold more than 30 million copies, won a Pulitzer Prize, and inspired a classic movie, Nelle (if you call her Harper, it means you don’t know her) is famously unhappy about being famous. She rejects requests for interviews, sometimes with a terse “Hell, no” scribbled on the letter requesting one. Charles J. Shields, author of the 2006 biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, had to cobble together his book without a word from her. Now 84, she’s as determined as she ever was to let the book speak for itself.

In Monroeville, a small town 100 miles southwest of Montgomery, those who talk out of school about Nelle risk a kind of excommunication. She isn’t fond of gossips. Folks know her, might wave to her at lunch at the country club, or at church. Mostly, they know to let her be.

It was a bit of an event when, not long ago, Nelle and her sister, Miss Alice, came into the Mockingbird Grill for lunch. Waitress Kenya Perez had often seen the Lee sisters at the park, feeding unpopped popcorn to the ducks. Kenya timidly approached the table and asked Nelle to autograph her book. Nelle graciously signed and went back to her meal.

“I was nervous because we know she don’t like to be noticed,” Kenya said. “But she was nice.”

Maycomb, the setting for the novel, is not on any map of Alabama. It is a made-up place. But if you know where to look, you can find its blueprint in Monroeville, whose landmarks—including some lost to time—inspired one of the South’s greatest stories.

The first thing you notice is the white clock tower on the old county courthouse. It still chimes the hour. Built in 1903, the Romanesque building now houses the Monroe County Heritage Museum, with rooms dedicated to Nelle and her lifelong friend Truman Capote, who spent summers here as a boy.

The courtroom is on the second floor. The movie plays continuously on a TV set, so you can compare the Hollywood set to the real thing. The resemblance is astonishing: same lawyers’ tables, same arched windows, same graceful, curving balcony.

The museum offers a walking tour of Monroeville “as Harper Lee and Truman Capote knew it.” Much of the world they grew up in is gone. Nelle’s childhood home on South Alabama Avenue was torn down years ago. The site is now occupied by Mel’s Dairy Dream. The Faulk place next door, where Capote lived, was lost in a fire. All that’s left is a commemorative marker and the rough stone wall that stood between the childhood homes of two of America’s greatest authors.

Boo Radley’s place isn’t on the tour, but locals say the spooky house in the neighborhood was where the Cannon gas station is now. Between the gas station and the school once stood a big water oak tree like the one where Boo left trinkets for Jem and Scout.

Monroeville would like to do more to promote literary tourism, but town leaders proceed cautiously in deference to Nelle, who despises the idea of anyone using her story for commercial gain.

Fortunately for restaurateur Sam Therrell, Nelle is a friend, so she puts up with the name of his establishment: Radley’s Fountain Grille.

***

Stay in Monroeville (pop. 7,000) for a few days and you’ll get to know just about everybody. The mayor is Mike Kennedy, whose family used to own the phone company. His picture appears on a billboard with the Mockingbird Court, high school girls who serve as hostesses for the chamber of commerce.

At the Beehive Coffee & Books on the square, you’ll meet owner Christina Nettles, who knows how the town takes its coffee. Christina chose not to stock the biography about Nelle, because she knew Nelle didn’t like it.

If your timing is good, when you’re in the square, you might see Miss Alice, Nelle’s sister and closest friend. (Neither ever married.) Miss Alice has been practicing law here since 1943 and still goes to the office several days a week, dressing in a proper business suit and tennis shoes. She turns 99 in September.

As for Nelle, once in a while she’ll make the trip to the Wind Creek Casino in Atmore, 40 miles south of town, where she delights in feeding dollar bills into the slots. The other people playing the Sizzling 7 machines are unaware that the woman next to them is one of the best-selling authors in the history of the written word.

Another of Nelle’s best friends is the Rev. Thomas Lane Butts, an 80-year-old retired United Methodist minister. She likes to tease him. She’ll say, “You rascal, what are you up to?” And he’ll say, “I’m up to anything I can reach.” She’ll ask him if he knows a certain obscure fact, and when he doesn’t, she’ll say, “If you want to be an educated man, Dr. Butts, you need to know that.”

When they part, he’ll reach out, tousle her hair, and kiss her on the top of her head. It makes her laugh.

Three tiny houses—facades, really—stand in a tight row in the courthouse square. They make up the set for the play based on the book. People come from around the world to see Monroeville’s annual production, which runs for about four weeks each spring and draws a sellout crowd of 250 every night.

Monroeville needs every tourist dollar it can get, and staging this play is the one significant thing the small town does to capitalize on its biggest draw. Nelle’s friend Reverend Butts says she is “not entirely enchanted” with the tradition—she has never attended a performance—but she tolerates it.

This is community theater in its purest form: Atticus played by a local banker, his daughter Scout by a sixth-grader from Monroeville Junior High.

The first act is staged outdoors, amid the three houses. The second takes place in the courtroom, where 12 audience members—always white men, for authenticity—are seated as jurors.

Robert Malone, a funeral director, played Tom this year. For him, the play is all about what life was like “back in the day.” The day wasn’t so far back. Malone remembers separate water fountains, separate schools, separate waiting rooms at the doctor’s office. He’s only 46.

He thinks it’s important to keep telling the story. “You can’t put the past behind you without understanding what it was like.”

Morgan Ard, the sixth-grader who played Scout, is a cheerleader, a Girl Scout, and a singer in the choir at First United Methodist, Nelle’s church. Nelle once told Morgan’s mama how pretty she is.

Morgan won’t read the book until the 8th grade, but she’s precocious. She shares her take on the story: “Scout learns that standing up for people is okay, even when people tell you not to.” She adds, “And people come together and love each other. And that’s about it.”

***

The beauty of it is, it still surprises us, even after all these years. No matter how many times we read To Kill a Mockingbird, we always find something new in it.

The question, really, isn’t whether you’ve read the book. Of course you have. The question is whether you’ve read it again.

Pat Dye, former Auburn football coach, has read it twice. He didn’t get much out of it the first time, but then, he readily admits, he’s no literary scholar. So he picked it up again a few years ago.

“The second time I read it, I read it. And when I got through, I was almost, I mean, in awe, and breathless. She knew what went on and I knew what went on back in those days, and she had enough guts and enough wisdom and enough brilliance to put it on paper. For a young girl to be able to capture that, it’s a miracle.”

Through relatives in Monroeville, Dye contacted one of Nelle’s neighbors and asked to meet her. On the appointed day, he and the neighbor picked up Nelle and a catfish supper and they all dined at the neighbor’s house. Pat Dye and Harper Lee could no sooner have a peaceful dinner in public than the Lord and Bear Bryant.

They talked about football and Alabama and people they’d met. Dye said meeting Nelle was the greatest thrill he’s had since he walked down the first fairway at Augusta National. After a while, he told her what was on his mind.

“I told her, I said, ‘You know, ma’am, you ain’t smart enough to write a book like that.’ She looked at me kinda funny a little bit, but not too bad. She was looking for the next sentence. I said, ‘Ain’t nobody smart enough to write a book like that. To write a book like that you gotta write it with your heart, your soul, your guts, your passion. You can’t write a book like that with just your brain.’ ”

Nelle thought about that. “She said, ‘I never could finish another book. I started two or three more.’

“I said, ‘That’s probably a good thing. You know, if you’d written another book, I don’t think you could ever have matched the masterpiece that you wrote. And if you did write one, it might have diminished To Kill a Mockingbird. And she said, ‘You’re probably right.’ ”

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