Book Recommendations

I Am Scout

by Charles J. Shields

Four conditions: if you remember “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or if you write, or if you respect the impact Harper Lee’s first book had on the country, or if you intend to read “Go Set a Watchman,” you need to read this biography about an author none of us know enough about.

I Am Scout

by Charles J. Shields

I originally purchased this Young Adult (YA) version of “Mockingbird” for my 13 year old daughter.  She was a hard pass, but to her credit, she stuck through three chapters.

A Connection to the Past

I picked up “I Am Scout” after she gave up, however, and was intrigued.  I remember being profoundly affected reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and then even more so when I realized later that Harper Lee never wrote another book.  

Mockingbird

by Charles Shields

The grown-up version of Lee’s biography. I have not read this version but thoroughly enjoyed the YA Version, “I Am Scout.”

Her single opus was a frequent English assignment in the 90s, and if the themes have stuck with you after all this time, you should read this book. It will illuminate much for you: why we know the author was a one-hit wonder, what impacted her story, and how and if her story reflected her actual reality.

I was pleased to find out that Scout was not an entirely fictional character.  It turns out, Nelle Harper Lee was also ahead of her time.  She dressed how she wanted; she did what she wanted.  A woman in that time would find few encouragers to follow a different path.

Yet, the environment in her home was such that her older sister was one of the first Alabamian lawyers who was a woman.  Lee expected to go to college.  She tried one but eventually landed at the University of Alabama for law school. 

She eventually dropped out and moved to New York to write, which we find is actually consistent with the drive her family displayed: do what you are meant to do, well. Unfortunately, the romance of that notion collided with the realities of living in a big city. Charles Shields showcases how her community both helped and hampered that life.

Also, similar to the story in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” her father was indeed a prominent member of the town, and their town had sharp divides when it came to roles of whites and blacks. Shields outlines the impact of this on Lee’s storytelling.

Personal Impact

I read this start to finish in two days.  It is chock full of information I never knew about this fascinating author-creature. It was written well: I was completely immersed.

I Am Scout

Charles J. Shields

New York, Squarefish, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC – 2008

Most important to me personally, though, was that reading Lee’s story forced a memory to come to the surface.  I remembered that in school, I had two separate English teachers rebuff student questions about authors’ lives.

For example, I remember after reading a John Donne poem in class, someone asked, “Geez, what happened in HIS life?” and the teacher said, “That’s irrelevant. Look at the art of it.”

This conveyed than an oeuvre could be evaluated whilst detached from the hand that wrote it, or, as it were an insult to the author to suggest their imaginations were in any way influenced by the world around them. 

From these snippets, I gathered that an author should be able to draw endless inspiration simply from their imagination; that their lives were irrelevant; that their pen would not possibly reflect themselves; the imagination from which it sprang was independent, fueled by genius alone; and that meant, of course, I’d never be a writer.

Yet this book by Charles Shields paints the picture of Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, AL, as a source of inspiration, starting with Lee’s neighbors, and her family, then, the smaller world around her.

And after reading Lee’s biography, I see there is real genius in using life as inspiration.  If we consider that thousands of people, events, and choices direct a person’s path, then culling experiences from so many personal ones is actually a greater achievement than ignoring them altogether. 

Racial bias is still very much a character in the American fabric.  Long ago, Lee weaved an unforgettable tale that helped America bring the conversation alive among younger children.  Exploring her life in this book emboldened me to do the same.

Lee, thankfully, artfully selected her experiences with race and growing up and blended them with her imagination to explode their impact. 

Note:

Charles Shields wrote this book in 2008, years before “Go Set a Watchman” was published in 2015, or even before any of us knew more Harper Lee work existed. 

I do recommend reading this biography as a prequel to “Go Set a Watchman.”  I am reading “Watchman” now and find that order helpful. Indeed, the book is even richer than it would have been had I not read her biography first. 

So there, two English teachers: I am grateful I know of Lee’s life as I read her book! 😊

PS all of my English teachers were outstanding instructors. I’d pay for my kids to have them, too! I’m thankful this book allows me to put to rest my memory of what they’ve said: my brain had allowed it to grow evil legs.

(I loved my English teachers. I love teachers.)

Enjoy this read!

I Am Scout

Charles J. Shields

New York, Squarefish, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC – 2008

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