Hannibal Free Public Library


Charles J. Shields

December 6, 2010

  Few novels are as beloved and acclaimed as To Kill a Mockingbird and even fewer authors have shunned the spotlight as successfully as its author. Journalist Shields interviewed 600 of Harper Lee's acquaintances and researched the papers of her childhood friend Truman Capote. The book percolates during her banner year of 1960, when she won the Pulitzer Prize and helped Capote research In Cold Blood. Shields believes Lee abandoned her second novel when her agents and her editor—her surrogate family in publishing—died or left the business, leaving her with no support system. There's a tantalizing anecdote about a true-crime project Lee was researching in the mid-'80s that faded away.  

Discussion Questions  

1.      Hypothesize: in light of Nelle Harper Lee's relationship to her mother, why is there no mother in To Kill a Mockingbird? 

2.      On the surface, Truman Capote and Nelle Harper Lee appeared to be so opposite as children. What was it about their lives and circumstances that led them to become close friends? 

3.      Today, social services address many of the problems that were taken for granted about life in Monroeville , Alabama in the 1930s. If Nelle Harper Lee was growing up in Monroeville now, how might her upbringing and experiences be different? 

4.      In his New Yorker magazine review of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Thomas Mallon writes about Harper Lee's father, "Mr. Lee was a 'fond and indulgent father,' who, in addition to practicing law, edited Monroeville 's local paper and served in the state legislature. He believed in segregation, low taxes, and noblesse oblige, and, as an elder of the First United Methodist Church , was prepared to scold the pastor for too much sermonizing about racial prejudice and unfair labor conditions …. Ambivalent and stretchable, he seems, all in all, a more interesting figure than Atticus Finch, the plaster saint for whom he provided the mold. "  How does Atticus Finch compare to Mallon’s description of A.C. Lee?

5.      When In Cold Blood was nearly ready for publication, Capote told one of the detectives on the Clutter case that Nelle wouldn't be given any special credit in the book- "she was just there." How would you describe Nelle’s contribution to In Cold Blood? 

6.      Gregory Peck insisted that the film To Kill a Mockingbird be reedited several times to make the character of Atticus more prominent at the expense of the children's scenes. If you've seen the film, is the film better or worse for Peck getting his way? 

7.      What do you think was the Lee family's reaction to Nelle's success and why? 

8.      What are some of the reasons you think that Harper Lee never published another novel? 

9.      Would you characterize Miss Lee as a "recluse" the way many reporters have? 

10.  In his introduction to Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Shields writes, "Despite her desire for privacy, I believe it is important to record Lee's story while there are still a few people alive who were part of it and can remember. I have tried to balance her desire for privacy with the desire of her millions of readers who have long hoped for a respectful, informative view of this rarely seen writer." Do you agree with his reason for writing the book while Lee was alive, and do you think he accomplished his goal? 

11.  Harper Lee says that because most folks had no money during the Great Depression, children were forced to live in their imaginations.  Now, of course, there are video games, television, organized sports, and so on. Has this change made a difference in children’s ability to imagine? What’s your opinion?

Adapted from http://charlesjshields.com/content/questions.asp, http://charlesjshields.com/PDF/I_Am_Scout_Guide.pdf, and Publishers Weekly.