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Mysteries of the Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird has sold over 30 million copies since its publication in 1960.  Hardly a high-school student in America over the last 40 years has graduated without having read the 1930’s-era drama of a small-town Southern lawyer who defends an innocent black man accused of rape by a white woman.  And many nonreaders have seen the 1962 film version, starring Gregory Peck as the reassuringly patriarchal Atticus Finch, the novel’s irrepressibly venerable widower, whose story is narrated through the voice of his adoring young daughter.

The book was Lee’s first—and her last.  Fame exploded upon her, as millions of copies sold within the first year, culminating in a Pulitzer Prize.  After an avalanche of media interviews, book tours, and speeches, and an invitation to provide on-site assistance for Gregory Peck’s movie, after 1964, the introverted Lee largely retreated from public life.  Now 81 years old, and still living mostly in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, Lee has surprisingly appeared at a few public events over the past year and even wrote a short letter to Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, O.  However, Lee still avoids commenting on her novel and shuns almost all interviews.

Thus, in writing Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, biographer Charles Shields was unable to talk with Lee or her immediate...

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