I don’t know how I missed reading To Kill and Mockingbird in high school or why I never saw more than clips of the Academy Award winning movie, but I recently watched the PBS documentary on the Pulitzer Prize winning book and the life of its author, Harper Lee, and was enthralled.
It wasn’t just the story Lee wrote, based on her Alabama hometown and the people that lived there, that moved me. I wasn’t unaware of it. It’s part of our cultural DNA. Seeing further clips of the 1962 movie, hearing excerpts of the book read by other authors, learning about the author’s life from her 98 year old sister and others was an immersion that fed my love of biography, history and art.
The documentary was like a story within a story with all the ingredients of a page turner … young Truman Capote living next door to Harper … a Christmas present of a year’s financial support from Lee’s New York friends so that she could write. Why did she never write another novel? Why did she drop the feminine “Nell” from her name? How was she able to step out of the societal norms of the south and tell such a gripping tale of racism in a pre-civil rights era?
Lee’s poetic prose, told from the perspective of a child, was brilliant and put me under a spell. I enjoyed the documentary commentary by others, hearing Harper’s last audio interview in the early 60’s, and watching students in classrooms today discuss the book. Oprah Winfrey talked about what an impact the book had on her, especially the last scene, which made her choke up as she read it. I cried too and thought how odd it was to be as moved as she was when she first read it as girl, hearing her read it now in a documentary.
I did read Erma Bombeck, who was also the subject of a moving PBS documentary that I recently saw. I distinctly remember reading a Bombeck column as young teenager and having a revelation. You can get published and paid for writing humorous life stories like that, I was shocked to realize. Her humor resonated with me and served as signpost.
Both Bombeck and Lee wrote with humor. They both wrote with honesty, one about the messiness of raising children and the other about the injustice of racism. They both wrote with love and both wrote during a time when it was largely a white man’s world.
It’s better late than never to meet the real women behind their words. It’s never too late to be inspired.
~ Watch a clip of the documentary HERE.