The Woman Behind To Kill a Mockingbird

Nelle Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee

What made Harper Lee tick?

Most fans of the private, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who died in February just shy of her 90th birthday, likely will never know.

There's one thing we do know, however.

To Kill a Mockingbird, the legacy of Nelle Harper Lee, continues to absorb - and attract - new audiences.

In 2014, Lee signed a deal with HarperCollins for the release of To Kill a Mockingbird in electronic and digital form. shared Lee's explanation, in a release made available by the publisher:

I'm still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries. I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation.

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird captured the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year. An Academy Award-winning movie of the same name followed in 1962.

Feature films based on books rarely ring true. This one did.

For Lee, a white woman from the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, all of this fame must have given new meaning to "overwhelming."

One of the many book covers of To Kill a Mockingbird

One of the many book covers of To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into more than 40 languages.

Never out of print in hardcover or paperback, it also became part of the standard school curriculum. All told, an estimated 40 million copies have been sold, The New York Times noted in Lee's obituary.

Doesn't it make you wonder just how many people have read this enduring classic?

When I did, in high school, I certainly didn't comprehend its vast reach, nor the way it touched and changed the lives of countless others. I thought it just spoke to me.

Even though I grew up in the North, I could relate to the precociousness of tomboy Jean Louise "Scout" Finch.

Imagine a girl calling her father by his first name, Atticus, and getting away with it.

Lee, pictured here with Gergory Peck filming the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird

Lee, pictured here with Gergory Peck filming the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird

My heart went out to attorney Atticus (Finch), who defied fellow Southern whites by representing Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of rape. The odds were stacked against Robinson from the start. But the courageous Finch never gave up.

The themes of To Kill a Mockingbird transcend time, continuing to resonate against a backdrop of what I have called the "F" word -- Fear. Sad to say, racial unrest more than dots the U.S. landscape. In the past few years, skirmishes between police and civilians have led to the deaths of a number of African-Americans.

In 2015, Lee shed one-book author status with the controversial publication of Go Set a Watchman. It features a grownup Scout returning to the South, confronted with certain disturbing truths about her family and her town.

Although Lee also spent time outside of the South, most notably New York City, her life came full circle. Lee had a private burial in her home town of Monroeville, located in the southern part of Alabama. She would've turned 90 in April.

If you haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird, please do.

Or, read it again. In the format of your choice. We've got them all at DPPL.  If you need help finding a copy, contact the Des Plaines Public Library. 

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