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NPR Arts & Life

Harper Lee's Depiction of 'Polarization In A Southern Town' Defines Legacy


The author Harper Lee died today in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. She was 89. In 1960, she wrote "To Kill A Mockingbird," which became one of the best-loved novels of the last century. In the book, a young white girl in the Depression-era South tells the story of her father, a lawyer, as he defends a black man. Then, last year, Lees' novel "Go Set A Watchman" was published. It portrays that same lawyer that many saw as a hero as a bigot. To discuss Lee's legacy, we called the writer Lizzie Skurnick. She remembers reading "To Kill A Mockingbird" as a child. It wasn't the portrayal of racial justice that captivated her; it was the young narrator.

LIZZIE SKURNICK: I was really struck by Scout, the heroine, and how she was experiencing the South - kind of a tomboy in a town that was a lonely town and going through a lot of changes.

SHAPIRO: Was that because you saw yourself in Scout? You're not from the South. You do have one black parent, one white parent.

SKURNICK: No, I don't think so. I think it's because, to me, that has always been the most emotionally interesting part of the book. And when I was younger, I really was more focused on narratives about girls - you know, "Little House On The Prairie," "Island Of The Blue Dolphins."

SHAPIRO: Do you think part of the reason "To Kill A Mockingbird" remains so beloved is because the problems that she was writing about 50 years ago have not gone away?

SKURNICK: No, I don't think it's exactly that because, you know, a novel like "Native Son" by Richard Wright, those are the same problems, too, but, you know, you don't see that book everywhere anymore. I think the reason it hasn't gone away is that Atticus, you know, as the brave lawyer defending the black community, that's how we'd like to see our country. But, you know, by the same token, we'd like it to happen because we have a white hero, you know, and not from a black hero. And I think it's such an interesting thing to look at how devoted people are to Atticus as the savior of racism in our country.

SHAPIRO: Are saying that, in a way, it's a slightly more palatable, less complicated, more mainstream way of taking on these possibly less palatable, more complicated problems?

SKURNICK: Oh, absolutely because - there was an article in The New York Times about how people who'd named their sons Atticus were now having to rethink the name. And as a black person...

SHAPIRO: Because in the later novel, Atticus was revealed to be racist.

SKURNICK: Right. And all I could think of was, you know, well, they could have named their son Crispus Attucks, or they could have named him Martin Luther King, or they could have named him any, you know, of the many, many black heroes in the country. But, you know, we want that hero to be Atticus. And I think that's also something we should start to think about and reckon with.

SHAPIRO: There's a satirical headline in The Onion that says, nation to honor Harper Lee by ensuring novel about horrors of racism always remains relevant.

SKURNICK: (Laughter) In a way, I think that's, you know, a good thing. I mean, as you said, I'm also Jewish and, you know, never forget is a big one in the Jewish world. And I do think Harper Lee, she depicted the, you know, polarization in a Southern town so well. And I do think that that's a portrait we should be reading for decades to come.

SHAPIRO: Lizzie Skurnick, thank you so much for talking with us.

SKURNICK: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Lizzie Skurnick is publisher of the young adult classics, Lizzie Skurnick Books, remembering Harper Lee with us, who died at age 89. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.