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Monroe County Heritage Museums
31 N. Alabama Ave.
Monroeville, AL 36461
Now, this small town has a famous literary heritage; among its former and current residents include Truman Capote (who spent a large part of his early childhood here), Hank Williams and, most notably, Harper Lee. You may have heard of her one novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was inspired in large part (for setting, at least) by her hometown.
Mary reads about a book a day, and always has trouble with the question “so what’s your favorite?” But if she had to choose (comparisons are odious, said John Donne. Or someone.) it would be “Mockingbird.” She knows a lot of it by heart. She’s worn out at least three paperbacks to tatters. So a stop here to look around—oh, and to stalk the reclusive author in an almost certainly futile and absolutely intrusive quest to ask her to sign Mary’s book (a hardcover now, lasts longer)—was a must. See, Ms. Lee used to sign books on random occasions, but has more or less stopped entirely, because people were abusing it; booksellers would get several signed copies and sell them for tremendous markups. Mary has no intention of ever doing this and has vowed to curse her heirs unto seven generations if they ever do so themselves.
The old courthouse is the setting for the book’s famous trial, and Ms. Lee absolutely drew upon it (and her lawyer father’s experiences therein) for inspiration. The building is no longer a governmental one, but instead a meticulously preserved homage to the hometown novel. As you stand in the courtroom, and gaze at the balcony, you can hear Rev. Sykes say “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
Exhibits upstairs discuss Ms. Lee’s and her book’s relationships to the town and revealed that the art director for the movie spent two days with her, photographing Monroeville and especially the courthouse, so that he could meticulously recreate both for the film’s sets. There was also a temporary exhibit on Capote’s childhood here and his local family. That house was destroyed in the 1940’s, but there is a historical plaque near the remaining stone foundations. There is nothing to mark where the Lee home presumably once stood; it was next door, but now there is a drive through an ice cream (or something—Jessica would have known!) stand.
This lack of signs pointing the way to the town’s most famous living resident was puzzling to us, coming as we do from Hollywood, where maps to the stars homes are hawked on the street. Perhaps this is why Mary figured she could go up to anyone at all, and ask them where Harper Lee lives. Which she did. No one knew. Or if they did, they weren’t telling, though one woman in a gift shop said Ms. Lee’s sister gets her hair done across the street.
Mary did ask the lovely woman running the gift shop at the museum/courthouse, who totally knew, and totally wouldn’t tell her, probably because she would get fired or would compromise her ethics or something honorable like that. Mary tried varying levels of winsome, but this was a far tougher broad than she, and she would not budge. Actually, she came close, when Mary (sincerely) vowed not to ring Ms. Lee’s doorbell or otherwise accost her, but just leave the book and a note behind on the porch. But at that point, Mary felt guilty; pushing this good person farther, to make her abandon her principles (both job and personal) didn’t seem right. Nor did she want to intrude on Ms. Lee. It would have been one thing if the locals said “Nelle? She’s right over there at the coffee shop having a sandwich, does it every day. Here, let me introduce you.” But anything else was, well, way to miss the point of the entire end of the book, Mary, she reminded herself.
So she settled for mailing the book (with another stamped envelope to make it easy to send back) to a PO Box Plucky Jessica had obtained from an old acquaintance of Ms. Lee’s. At the post office, she asked the nice person at the counter if the address was correct. “No, it’s not,” the person said, and Mary’s heart sunk some more. “But I’ll fix it for you,” they finished, and then very casually crossed out the erroneous information and wrote in the right one, and then even more casually turned it so Mary could make note of it for the future. Mary then asked some advice about the letter she had enclosed, and the person thought her polite request was appropriately framed. So what the hey? It’s worth a try, but as that same letter says, if Ms. Lee chooses not to do so (it’s hardly the only such request she has gotten today, much less ever), and just sends the book back unsigned, Mary’s love and respect for both book and author will not be diminished.
But it still would have been cool if we had met her. And bought her some pie.
Update: A few months later after the trip Mary got a package. In it was her book, autographed by Harper Lee.
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