Language and movies entered my life about the same time when I was a child. I loved books and reading. I loved stories. Movies also were stories, magical and special in a darkened theater, preceded by funny cartoons. My parents took us to adult movies if they thought the subject matter was important. I remember that in one year, they took us to see Lawrence of Arabia (historical) and To Kill a Mockingbird (social history). My response to both was instant love and a desire to read the books. My father owned a first edition of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom that he gave to me. In the living room bookshelves, I found To Kill a Mockingbird and first learned the author’s name: Harper Lee.
The news last Friday of Harper Lee’s death brought back the first time I held her masterwork and the hours I spent reading it the first time. Her prose evoked the South during a time unfamiliar to me and yet easy to visualize in my mind. Over the years, I’ve learned more about Ms. Lee, facts that surprised me at times and facts that inspired me. It pained me that she had stopped writing when she had shown so much talent in her first novel. Her friendship with Truman Capote astonished me until I learned that they had met as children, and had been best buddies. Her portrayal of Dill, the character in Mockingbird based on Capote, was loving and real. I loved him as much as Scout, Jem, and Atticus.
I wanted to be Scout. She was fearless in her own way and in her convictions. She stood up for what she believed in. And her father was Atticus Finch. What a father! Ms. Lee painted such a vivid picture of these characters and their lives, their interests and concerns. All while confronting racism head on through the trial in which Atticus defended Tom Robinson. I think now what truly resonates about the characters in this book is that each reader can probably recognize each character as someone he or she knows in his or her own life.
Later in Junior High, I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. This book fascinated me — a nonfiction story written using fiction techniques. At the time, I didn’t know that Capote was Dill, or that Capote and Lee were good friends, or that she assisted him when he was researching his book. It was a scary story, actually, written with an eerie power, putting the reader right inside the scene as if a participant. I’ve read some short fiction by Capote since then, but nothing else.
In 2005 I saw the movie Capote, about Capote discovering the story and writing In Cold Blood. That’s when I learned about the enduring friendship between Capote and Lee. How sad she must have been when Capote died in 1984, a victim of liver disease most likely caused by his own excesses. But I was also surprised by her loyalty to him despite the way he apparently treated her because of his narcissism. She must have known him better than anyone else except perhaps Capote’s partner, Jack Dunphy.
Now, Ms. Lee has slipped away to literary Heaven — I can’t imagine her going anywhere else. I’d like to think that she and Capote have reunited and are exchanging stories, getting caught up.