My Father & Atticus Finch
By Joseph Madison Beck. (W.W. Norton, 218 pages, $25.95.)
"To Kill a Mockingbird" has inspired readers and critics for decades. But what inspired Harper Lee to write her novel? Joseph Madison Beck suggests he may have the answer.
In this fast-moving memoir, Beck recounts how his father, a small-town lawyer, was thrown into the 1938 trial of a Northern black man accused of raping a local white woman in a southern Alabama town. His taking the case puts everything he loves in jeopardy: his law practice, reputation, safety and any future with the woman he hopes to marry.
Despite a tireless defense, he is beaten down in the courts even after evidence the woman had never been violated or harmed — that she was still a virgin. As racial tensions build, memories of the South's role in slavery and defiance in the face of change echo through the pages.
The parallels to "Mockingbird" resound throughout the recounting of the scandalous case. But Harper Lee was only 12 years old at the time of the trial, and in correspondence with Beck through her publicist shortly before she died, Lee said she did not recall the case. Beck cites widespread news stories of the time and suggests that Lee's father, an Alabama lawyer and newspaper editor, may have spoken of the case and left threads of memories that inspired Lee, later in life, to write her story based in an indisputably similar time and setting.
Inspiration for "Mockingbird" or no, the memoir stands on its own as a powerful telling of injustice in a less tolerant time.
GINNY GREENE, copy editor
Swallowed by the Great Land
By Seth Kantner. (Mountaineers Books, 201 pages, $15.95.)
"Ordinary Wolves," a most extraordinary 2004 novel about a white boy raised by the Inupiaq in Alaska, netted fisherman and author Seth Kantner a boatload of literary prizes. Its success has not changed his hunting-and-gathering life, except that he occasionally flies out to give a speech or writing class.
"Swallowed by the Great Land" is a collection of short, eloquent essays focused on the daily lives of Kantner and his family and his fellow native Alaskans. (Kantner is native by birth, if not by heritage, but his ways are entirely those of his Inupiaq neighbors.) In blunt language shot through with his love of his imperiled bush home, he writes about family (his wife, daughter and their geographically far-flung but emotionally intimate community), food (its gathering, butchering and preserving) and the raw beauty of the coastal and interior tundra areas he calls home. About all those things he is joyful, but the book turns sorrowful as he chronicles the accelerating environmental changes that soon will make his eons-old subsistence lifestyle impossible.
Most visibly, that means warmth and rains well into December that swamp the landscape for weeks, making impassable what once was easily crossed over by dog sled or snow machine. Kantner's highly personal, eloquent observations of what climate change, now well underway in the Arctic, means for the animals and people of his world are heartbreaking in a way that scientific descriptions simply can't be.
PAMELA MILLER, night metro editor