Birney Imes: To Kill a Mockingbird


Birney Imes



Tommy Nettles'' Southside home with its white picket fence and parlor with antique dining table, family portraits and overstuffed bookshelves reaching to the ceiling could have been a set in the movie, "To Kill a Mockingbird."


The book on which that 1962 movie was based was published 50 years ago today. It was written by Harper Lee, then an unknown writer from a small town in Alabama who had low expectations for her 2-1/2-year-long effort. The book netted Lee a Pulitzer Prize; it''s sold more than 30 million copies and has been translated into more than 40 languages; it''s used in classrooms all over the world and has never been out of print. Recently a survey of British librarians ranked "To Kill a Mockingbird" ahead of the Bible as a book "every adult should read before they die."


Though set during the 1930''s, anyone over the age of 50 who grew up in a small town in the deep South will recognize the scenery, the social outcasts, the class structure and the racial tensions Lee describes.



Nettles especially. Born in 1954, he spent the first 10 years of his life in Tunnel Springs, Ala., a country town 10 miles from Monroeville, Ala., Lee''s hometown and the basis for Maycomb, the setting of her only book.


A lawyer who lives in Columbus but practices in Tuscaloosa, Nettles remembers as a child going to Monroeville with his mother and grandmother to shop.


He describes the rectangular courthouse square with its "ugly" new courthouse and the old courthouse, now a museum, with its courtroom recreated for the movie. He remembers the Katz Department store on the square where his family bought their clothes, the soda fountain next door and next to it the barber shop.


Though it was never talked about much around the dinner table, Nettles says his father and Miss Nelle, as the author is known around Monroeville, were at one time sweethearts.


"I''ve seen pictures of them (his father and Lee) on a picnic at a creek where people went to swim," he said.


Nettles says his mother gave his sister, Laura, a school portrait of Lee.


The early childhood he describes with his younger sister as his main playmate mirrors that of Scout and Jem of the book.


"There weren''t any children where we lived," says Nettles. "We played together. We had a field and a pond."


Like anyone living in the segregated South during those years, Nettles and his sister couldn''t help but be aware of the racial tensions never far from the surface, a powder keg that could ignite with the least provocation.


"There were tensions," he says, "but I was insulated. My parents didn''t talk about it."


Yet, despite strict segregation, Nettles and his sister, just as Scout and Jem did in Lee''s novel, came to know and appreciate -- maybe even love -- members of a race separated from them by the unjust laws of that time.


Nettles and his sister would frequent the home of an elderly black couple who lived on his grandmother''s place and they played with the children of a black woman, who did his family''s washing.


Nettles has read and reread "To Kill a Mockingbird"; he''s listened to it on tape and just recently watched the movie on Turner Classics.


"It''s chock full of things," he says. "I think every child should read it. I think every lawyer should read it because it is a moral statement about the profession."


The best explanation I''ve seen for the book''s enduring popularity comes from Harper Lee biographer Charles J. Shields who says, above all, the book is "just a darned good story." Shields goes on to say, "it deals with one of the great challenges facing all humanity, which is getting along with people who are different from ourselves.


"The last reason the book is going to remain a classic is that it does what all great literature does: It reads you as you read it. It asks you what are your convictions, what do you stand for, could you do what Atticus did? You can''t help but think to yourself, ''What would I do if that were laid at my feet? Could I stand up and do the right thing?''"


"To Kill a Mockingbird," is a beautiful little gem of a book. What better time than now to give it another read.


E-mail Birney Imes at [email protected]



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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