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On This Day
On November 22, 1963, the president of the United States was assassinated. It was three days after my eighth birthday. The day before, my mother gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. The boy only lived a few minutes. I think there was a drizzly rain as we stood by the tiny grave and watched the burial.
The story of The Liberators of Willow Run begins twenty years earlier, during a time of war and societal upheaval and uncertainty. Able-bodied men were away, women filled factory jobs to support the war effort, and some used the commotion of the times to hide and to begin lives that could never be lived fully, honestly, in settled times. Nona, a black girl from Kentucky, determined to earn and save as much as she can from the high-paying job at the Willow Run bomber plant, has stepped outside the expected life to forge one of her own making. She plans to save every dime and go to college. Audrey has left her home and family wishing only to be free of their expectations and condemnation, to lose herself in the war effort. To forget the tragedy she feels responsible for. And Ruth, who winds up in Ypsilanti almost by accident, after giving a baby up for adoption, determined that she will not go back to a life of marriage and children.
Each of these women, and others, try to figure out how to live more honestly, more freely, than prewar norms. From the moment Audrey and Nona meet, while Ruth serves her time at the Crittendon Home for Unwed Mothers, this is a story of courage and self examination, of second chances and self taught skills used to navigate what seems to be a new world. Or it is the old world, turned upside down, where women go off to the factory jobs with lunch pails, and the absence of men makes friendships between these working women something special, more valued than friendships in peacetime, when of course husbands and boyfriends came first?
Reading this book, at this particular time in this country’s history, brought emotions to the surface that I didn’t realize I felt. Two weeks ago, we elected as president a man whose every policy and pronouncement seems aimed at turning back the clock on hard won achievements for women, for LGBT, for people of color, for immigrants, even for veterans. Many of us have been stunned by this transition to come in January. Many justifiably fear what may come in this new administration. Many are wondering whether we may have to fight the same battles again that we assumed were won and done, the Voting Rights Act, Roe v Wade, marriage equality, don’t ask don’t tell, health insurance for those with pre-existing conditions. Weariness and disillusion sets in, and we begin to feel hopeless.
Just as those thousands of women must have felt when they were forced from their manufacturing jobs to make way for returning servicemen, as Nona and Audrey surely felt. How can they just shove these confident women back into kitchens and parlors? It seems like a terrible waste. Was it all wasted effort? What do Nona and Audrey and the other women like them do with newly acquired skills and confidence in their own capabilities? What a bitter pill that must have been for thousands of women, to be told they are no longer needed, to go back home and raise a family, to make way for the young men returning from war who deserve those jobs.
Forgive me for drawing this parallel, but reading this book is the first time I have felt hopeful since the election. Those thousands of women did go home. The next decade was one of silent, benign conformity for women. The fifties and sixties were the time of the peaceful protests and angry confrontations that achieved the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The sixties was also marked by breaking bonds of convention, of questioning society’s roles, of defying the government. And the next decade? The women’s movement.
Like Audrey and Ruth, like Amelia and Lillian and Mrs. Bailey, we must find the fortitude to tackle questions we believed were settled, to fight again the battles those before us also fought> What does it feel like to be made lesser than we are? A lot like Ruth felt when she left that unwed mothers’ home and struck out on her own. It feels an awful lot like all those women who helped win the war with manufacturing production unseen till then in the world. Stephen Ambrose states that the man who invented the Higgins boats won the war for the Allies. That man may have designed the Higgins boats that delivered six divisions to the beaches of Normandy, but it was women workers who built them, in the quantity and in the time needed. They delivered.
Ruth and Audrey and Nona struggled to be honest with themselves about who they were and about what they wanted. They decided to keep fighting even after the war for things they believed in. This wonderful book, so beautifully written, gives me hope that we too who are disappointed at the end of this election campaign can begin again, fight the fight, reject being thought of as lesser than. If you are as old as I am, and you remember all those marches, boycotts and peaceful protests that changed this country, then you know we can do it all again if we have to. Those of you in a younger generation may not yet realize that some things you take for granted can be, might be, taken from you. But I do believe in your enthusiasm for change. That makes an unbeatable alliance.
Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me
In William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, Annie Sullivan despairs of ever reaching the blind and deaf little girl, Helen Keller. Annie makes a speech in Act Three about the importance of words and language. made all the more poignant because Helen is sitting there, playing, unaware of the anguish Annie reveals. “. . .words, why, you can see five thousand years in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know– and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.”
Harper Lee died Feb 19, 2016. She was eighty nine years old. My mother was also born in 1926, just about forty miles down the road from Monroeville, Alabama, where Nelle Harper Lee grew up. I always liked that synchronicity. Of course, I was also born just down the road from Harper Lee’s home town. I can’t remember the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I know that my first, oldest copy is a 1962 paperback that is falling apart. As an adult, I bought a hardback copy, the fortieth anniversary edition. I also have a first edition, twentieth printing.
I can quote lines and even paragraphs from this book, as many who count this among their favorite books can. “The Truth is not in the Delafields.” “Don’t you say ‘hey’ to me, you ugly girl. You say ‘good afternoon, Miss Dubose’.” “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
And there is this paragraph, the one that makes us see and smell the setting of the story. “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
And the introduction to one of the most unique and beloved characters in literature, Dill.
“Sitting down, he wasn’t much taller than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke.
‘Hey yourself,’ said Jem pleasantly.
‘I’m Charles Baker Harris,’ he said. ‘I can read.'”
And the voice, the point of view, one that came from an adult distance but sounded pitch perfect true to every note of childhood, that voice shaped the entire novel, telescoping from a little girl named Scout back to the grown up who retells with great fondness a story we all relate to, because there is so much in the telling that is similar, even universal, about the play and the ideas and the outlooks of small children.
Well, that voice, that telescope, is gone now. Nelle was buried quickly on February 20, quietly, privately, surrounded by only a few relatives and friends, just as she lived.
To Kill a Mockingbird became an instant classic, on the bestseller list for eighty eight weeks, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and became a classic movie as well, with a luminous screenplay written by Horton Foote, who managed to get the tone exactly right. The book has sold well over thirty million copies worldwide, is the novel that is taught in school more than any other, and served as inspiration for a generation of lawyers who wanted to be like Atticus, and a generation of feminists who emulated the spunk feistiness of Scout. The American Library Association lists it as one of the one hundred best books of the twentieth century. I find those parameters to be narrow.
Surely, this novel has influenced and shaped me as much as any religion. In a way, To Kill a Mockingbird served as a Bible for me. I can quote passages from the Bible, of course. But Scout and Jem, Atticus, Calpurnia, Uncle Jack and Aunt Alexandra, Miss Maudie and Miss Rachel Haverford. And of course, the Radley family. The spooky, sinister stories told by the children of the town turned Boo Radley into a ghost, a legend, and a source of endless speculation and entertainment.
Miss Lee has herself become a legend, a literary icon, one with a spooky history of reclusiveness, friend and help mate of Truman Capote, her childhood friend, the writer who wrote one book and never another.
As I framed similarities between my mother’s childhood and Harper Lee’s, I also shaped parallels between their later lives. My mother gradually lost her sight to macular degeneration. So did Miss Lee, who lost her hearing as well. I became a writer as much to please my mother, to make her proud of me, as I did to emulate Harper Lee, who was my literary hero. When my first novel was published, I sent a copy to Miss Lee, through her agent. I received a handwritten note in reply, encouraging me to continue with my writing endeavors, and informing me that sadly, she could no longer read books with normal font, because of her worsening eyesight. I treasure that letter.
I once snuck into the famous courthouse, long before it became a museum. I climbed to the top of the clock tower and looked out over Miss Lee’s town. It looked pretty much like my own hometown, and besides paved streets, not so different from that time when Nelle ran and played, read, and made up stories.
I don’t know why I feel as sad and lost today as I did when my mother died. I never met Harper Lee, never even saw her despite many trips to Monroeville. Her book, the one that I reread and memorized, the one I count as a better friend to me than most people, the book that compelled so many children to become lawyers and encouraged little girls to retain their spunkiness, the one that remarkably, said everything there was to say about small towns, race, courage, and being kind, just on the cusp of the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties, that book, those words, still light my way, as from the first time I read them, lying on my bed beside an open window. Words can enlighten us. sure. They can live with us, in us, and they can shape and inspire and entertain. Miss Lee’s words did all of that for me.
Addendum: Here is the eulogy read at Miss Lee’s funeral service on Saturday, Feb 20, 2016, delivered by Dr. Wayne Flynt, historian, Alabama native, and lifelong friend of Miss Lee.