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Harper Lee

Few more curious women authors exist in history, and few written works throughout history have achieved more lasting recognition than Harper Lee and her monumental masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, a simple story about a rape that allegedly took place in a small southern town.  Lee wrote the book when she had no other experience with publishing.

Born in Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926, Harper Lee is descended from Confederate general Robert E. Lee.  She was the youngest of four children of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee.  Her father, a former newspaper editor and proprietor, had served as a state senator and practiced law in Monroeville.  Lee studied law at the University of Alabama from 1945 to 1949 before spending a year as an exchange student in Oxford University, Wellington Square. 

In 1949, six months before finishing her studies, she quit school and went to New York to pursue a literary career.  She worked during the 1950s as an airline reservations clerk with Eastern Air Lines and British Overseas Airways.  In 1959, she accompanied her close friend, Truman Capote, to Holcombe, Kansas, as a research assistant for his classic nonfiction "novel," In Cold Blood (1966).

"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." - Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and became an instant international bestseller.  In its first year, it sold half a million copies and was translated into 10 languages.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1961 and was adapted to the screen the following year.  Lee was 34 when the book was published, and it remains her first and only novel.

Lee's story unfolds in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s when Atticus Finch, a lawyer and a single father, is called upon to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a poor white girl, Mayella Ewell.  The setting and several of the characters are drawn from real life.  Finch was the maiden name of Lee's mother, and the character of Dill was drawn from Capote, Lee's childhood friend.  The trial itself has parallels to the infamous "Scottsboro Trial," in which the charge was rape.  In both cases, the defendants were African-American men and their accusers, white women.

"But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal - there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president.  That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States of the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve.  Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country, our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal." - Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson

The narrator is Finch's daughter, nicknamed Scout, a highly intelligent and observant youngster.  She begins the story when she is six years old and relates many of the experiences, childhood activities, and events that befall the peace-filled world of childhood.  Her mother has died, and she tries keeping up with her older brother, Jem, who breaks his arm so badly that it heels shorter than his good arm.

One day, the children meet Dill, their new seven-year-old friend.  They become obsessed by stories of Boo Radley, a single recluse in his thirties.  As the narrative unwinds, Scout tells her story in her own language, which is that of a child, but she also analyzes people and their actions from the viewpoint of an adult.

The first plot tells the story of the secretive Boo, who is thought by many to be deranged, and the second involves defendant Tom Robinson.  A jury of twelve white men believe the story of two whites, refusing to look past the color of a man's skin when they convict Robinson of a rape he didn't commit.  When Robinson tries to escape, he is shot and killed.  Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, is obviously guilty of beating his daughter for making sexual advances toward Robinson.  Ewell attacks Jem and Scout late one night after Atticus exposed his daughter's less-than-honorable actions in court.  The children are saved when Boo comes to their rescue, stabbing Ewell to death.

The story emphasizes that children are born innocent and unbiased, with an instinct for justice, and only turn prejudiced through socialization.  It also resonates with the reality that, wherever you are, there are people like Bob Ewell who would stoop to any level before accepting the premise of the equality of man.

"Mr. Finch, there's just some kind of men you have to shoot before you can say hidy to 'em.  Even then, they ain't worth the bullet it takes to shoot 'em.  Ewell 's one of 'em." - Tom Robinson to Atticus Finch

After the success of her first novel, Lee returned from New York to Monroeville, where she has lived ever since.  To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into several languages.  Lee has been likened to some of the best of American regional authors, including Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and others.

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