Book Review Archives

Up Close: Harper Lee: A Twentieth Century Life

By: Kerry Madden
Reviewed by: Norman McMillan
Viking Children’s, 2009
$16.99, Hardcover

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has from the beginning appealed greatly to young readers. Flannery O’Connor even went so far as to identify it as a children’s book. That may well be debatable, but in 1988 the National Council of Teachers of English reported that the novel was taught in 74% of the nation’s schools, exceeded only by Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Huckleberry Finn. Given the mass reading programs of the last few years, such as the Big Read program sponsored by The National Endowments for the Arts, the number of young readers has likely become even higher than it was twenty years ago.

Considering such a large audience, it is little surprise that Viking would have wanted to include Harper Lee in its Up Close series, which publishes short biographies for young readers on a wide range of important figures from the twentieth century. The publisher approached Kerry Madden, author of books for young readers, about writing the biography, and she took on the daunting task of researching the life of a subject who has not given an interview since 1964 and who has made it known widely that she will not cooperate with any such project. And Madden also found that neither would Lee’s family or many of her friends give her much information.

It isn’t surprising, then, that anyone looking for new information on Harper Lee is likely to be disappointed. Certainly those who have read Charles J. Shields’ unauthorized biography of 2006 are in for no new significant revelations. Indeed, in Madden’s book, Lee often recedes into the background. The useful thing the book does, however, is to provide basic information on the historical and cultural currents that provide a context for both To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee’s own life. In fact, Madden has written a book that might well be used in the classroom as a companion text for Mockingbird—or The Bird, as Harper Lee and her sister Alice came to call the novel.

The things that young people are not familiar with often surprise adults. That Madden would feel the need to devote the pages she does to the case of the Scottsboro Boys seems strange to those of my generation, though I know very well that many of us born during World War II thought of Hitler and General Patton as persons existing off somewhere in the dim past.

Madden not only provides historical information, but she also explains some of the quainter aspects of southern life. “Meat and three” means a meat and three vegetables, she tells her readers. We in Alabama might forget that establishments serving such a menu do not appear across this country.

In this book, audience is all, and Madden writes in a way that I believe will be instructive and entertaining for her young readers. June 2009

Norman McMillan, winner of the Eugene Current-Garcia Award, is the author of the memoir Distant Son and of the plays Truman Capote: Against a Copper Sky and Ashes of Roses, based on stories by Mary Ward Brown.