Monroeville & Mockingbirds
by Erin Z. Bass
Like most of us Southerners, I read the book “To Kill a Mockingbird” in school and probably watched the movie then too. Growing up in a small town where everybody on our street knew each other, I could relate to the Boo Radley house (it was right across the street from my own and occupied much of my time standing at the kitchen window with binoculars trying to find out what went on inside) as well as to Mrs. Dubose (she lived two houses down and didn’t appreciate my sister and I picking her roses). What I didn’t find out until much later is that the town of Maycomb actually exists. It’s Monroeville, Alabama, the home of Harper Lee, courthouse featured in the book and an annual theatrical production of the now classic story.
As “To Kill a Mockingbird” celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Monroeville is preparing for thousands of “Mockingbird” fans to descend upon the town starting today and lasting through the weekend. The Monroe County Heritage Museum kicks off the celebration with a panel discussion by residents who remember the novel’s publication and how it transformed their sleepy little town. Thursday’s schedule also includes the first public showing in Monroeville of the acclaimed film adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” since 1963. Events continue Friday and Saturday with a marathon reading from the judge’s bench in the old courtroom where Harper Lee’s father practiced law. On Saturday, a preview screening of the upcoming documentary, “Our Mockingbird,” will be shown, and other activities include games on the courthouse lawn and walking tours of downtown featuring sites where Lee and fellow writer and childhood friend Truman Capote lived as children. Sunday marks the actual publication date of the book with cake and ice cream on the courthouse lawn and the announcement of the silent auction winner of a signed, mint condition 35th anniversary edition of the book.
Also adding to the fun will be an evening of Southern foods described in the book – collard greens, cornbread, fried chicken and lane cake – prepared by Chef Clif Holt of Little Savannah in Birmingham Friday night. And Southern cocktail expert Denise Gee has created a signature drink for the weekend, the “Tequila Mockingbird.”
If you can’t make it to Monroeville this weekend, that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate the anniversary. Cities and towns across the country are planning events through September, and book publisher Harper Collins has a long list on their special anniversary site. Don’t see your town on the list? Create your own event. Deep South is partnering with our local Barnes & Noble in Lafayette to have a day of celebration for the book, and we’ll be posting resources and ideas for other groups who want to join in.
While Monroeville is pulling out all the stops this weekend, the town won’t be any less charming or filled with literary history another weekend, so there’s never a bad time to make that “Mockingbird” pilgrimage. I visited in April as part of a tour through Alabama’s small towns and almost didn’t come back. Stuck back in time in a way that feels safe and comforting, Monroeville is a place where people still walk into town, say hello to each other on the street and don’t mind telling you about the time their child played Scout or Jem in the play. It reminded me of growing up in my hometown of Crowley in South Louisiana, where my father still practices law and life revolved around the courthouse and annual Rice Festival.
In Monroeville, activity all year leads up to the town’s spring “To Kill a Mockingbird” production, also celebrating an anniversary – its 20th – this year. Local children (pictured on left) pass the roles down as they grow, dads like Harvey Gaston, who is CEO of Peoples Exchange Bank, take on the part of Atticus; native Robert Champion, an investigator with the Monroeville Police Department, plays Boo; and the crucial role of Tom Robinson is played by Monroe County Coroner Robert Malone, proving that the story is still relevant today and that its message hits home with people of all ages. Starting outdoors on the lawn as soon as the courthouse clock strikes 7, the play moves inside the courtroom for act two and Tom Robinson’s trial.
Since the closing of Vanity Fair’s offices outside of downtown (the silk mill referred to in “To Kill a Mockingbird”), Monroeville has begun to diversify and further cement its place as a tourist destination in the South. Art galleries are opening downtown, Beehive Coffee and Books celebrated its first anniversary in May, and the Alabama Writers Symposium, held at the end of April each year, brings such writers as Rick Bragg and the late George Plimpton to town. These new developments are complementing existing businesses, like The Courthouse Cafe, Mel’s Dairy Dream (where burgers are still served in waxed paper) and the Old Courthouse Museum, where visitors can see exhibits on Harper Lee and Truman Capote and visit the gift shop for all things “Mockingbird.”
We’ve been saving two submissions for Southern Voice for just this occasion. “Mockingbird Summer” by Martha Lyons and “(I’d Like) to Kill a Mockingbird” by Ruth J. Hartman both feature our favorite singing bird. Read them here.