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5 Years

The Extraordinary Harper Lee

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, in New York, 1960. (Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images)

When I was growing up, interesting young female protagonists were thin on the ground, especially ones who looked and thought and sounded like me. Enter Scout Finch, disheveled, scrappy and precocious, she leapt off the page and into my heart, compliments of Nelle Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Instantly successful, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and would go on to become the classic of American Literature, selling thirty million copies. So far. A staple of high school English classes, despite its dark adult themes of domestic violence, racism, and rape, To Kill a Mockingbird continues to sell about a million copies per year.

Lee grew up in a small, southern town, the child of an attorney father and a distant mother who struggled with mental illness. Lee’s real-life Dill, her best friend and neighbor, “a pocket Merlin whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fantasies,” was none other than Truman Capote. Once Lee had delivered her novel into the hands of the publisher, she was off to provide Capote with the research, interviewing, and emotional support he needed to complete his nonfiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood.

In 1962, Gregory Peck won the Best Actor Oscar in a film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird that played to his strengths. With eight Academy Award nominations and three wins, the film was obviously well-received, but it lost something precious by shifting the focus from Scout to her father. 


The Extraordinary Harper Lee


Don’t get me wrong. Atticus Finch is a wonderful character, stoically brave and admirable for his unflinching sense of justice. The rabid dog scene, eloquently penned by Lee and expertly executed by director Robert Mulligan, reveals Finch’s reluctance to stand in the spotlight. He dispatches the dangerous animal with quiet efficiency and a complete lack of bravado. No bluster. No swagger. When the sheriff compliments his precise marksmanship, Finch shushes him and heads back to work, his children gaping in amazement. The scene is a master class in characterization, but it is important to note that Atticus Finch has no discernable character arc. He is the same hard-working, dedicated father at the end of the story as he was at the beginning. Scout, on the other hand, is far more fascinating.

Adventurous, outspoken, and extraordinary, Scout Finch careens her way into her reader’s imagination, charming all but the most rigidly conventional, just as Little Miss Nelle must have done so many years ago in Monroeville, Alabama.

Too young to go to school, Scout is determined to understand playground culture and conducts reconnaissance through her tree house telescope. She is always hungry for adventure. Once she makes it to school, Scout makes a name for herself. She trusts her fists and is more than willing to draw first blood when she feels she’s been wronged. No matter the size of her opponent, this girl will not be bullied. Neither will she be easily dissuaded from a good idea. When Jem is out of creative ways to pass the time, Scout suggests, “Let’s roll in the tire.” Jem sighs into the complaint that he’s too big to fit inside a tire, but Scout is undeterred. “You can push.” She refuses to be left out of Jem and Dill’s plans, no matter how hair-brained or dangerous. Jean Louise Finch refuses to let life pass her by.

Always direct and often impertinent, Scout Finch speaks her mind. Her precocious vocabulary occasionally wanders into what her uncle refers to as “bathroom invective”, an affliction her father considers “a stage all children go through, and it dies with time when they learn they’re not attracting attention with it.” Scout’s willingness to speak when others hesitate calls out bigotry, recognizes the disenfranchised (Hey, Boo), and quite possibly saves her father’s life.


The Extraordinary Harper Lee


One of the things that makes Scout Finch extraordinary is her appearance. She will wear a dress if the occasion demands it, but she’s never comfortable in it. She admits, “I was usually mud splashed or covered with sand.” Despite her Aunt Alexandra’s admonishments to dress properly and act like a lady, Scout dons her most comfortable uniform – overalls. Societal norms are confining. After all, she’d look silly wearing a dress while rolling down the street in a filthy tire. At the end of the novel, Aunty sees Scout for who she really is. Following the traumatic attack from Mr. Ewell, she brings Scout her overalls. “Put these on, darling.” Scout does put them on, and proceeds to illustrate the characteristic that makes her most extraordinary of all: her compassion. She refuses to allow her guardian angel to be pitied by spying neighbors. “I would lead him through our house, but I would never lead him home… if Miss Stephanie Crawford was watching from her upstairs window, she would see Arthur Radley escorting me down the sidewalk, as any gentleman would do.”

Scout Finch is extraordinary because Nelle Harper Lee was extraordinary. Lee left this life Feb. 19, 2016. Let’s take a moment to appreciate her and her exquisite creation, To Kill a Mockingbird, a work whose publication is etched into the timeline of our cultural landscape. The lessons taught in its dog-eared, coffee-stained pages – to walk in another person’s skin, to treat even the smallest of creatures with respect, and to live our lives with honor – resonate not only with Southerners like me, but with people all over the world. To Kill a Mockingbird always was, always is, and always shall be relevant.