Disclaimer: This is not an impartial review. The author Casey Cep and I attended grad school for a year. Though we’ve lost touch, I consider her an old friend and think highly of her.
Harper Lee is an iconic American figure almost as much for her reclusiveness as her writing. Aside from a smattering of journal articles, her one hit wonder To Kill A Mockingbird is probably the most printed book in history outside of the Bible, yet she never wrote anything else and maintained a veiled private life.
Yet apparently, she always had an interest in lawyers and true crime and wanted to tell a new tale from her home state of Alabama. Obviously, that book never got published but there is quite a story behind it as Casey Cep is willing to share.
There are essentially three stories here and Casey weaves them well. The first is the black Pastor from Alabama who allegedly (almost certainly, quite probably) murdered wives and family members to collect insurance policies he took out on them with himself as the beneficiary. The second is the white Kennedy Democrat lawyer who defended the man who shot the Pastor. The third is a time capsule of Lee’s life leading up to, during, and after she tried to write a book on it.
Casey does a great job of giving life to all three stories and handling them with subtlety and nuance. There’s no yankee condescension of southern culture; she rarely editorializes on anything as a matter of fact. She’s able to tell the story in full with respect to all of its participants.
That goes doubly so for how she treats Lee. Left to a lesser writer, the large gaps in Lee’s life could have been filled with conjecture and innuendo. Casey eschews this in favor of trying to bring a human being to life for the reader, sticking with what was known. This isn’t a hagiography of Lee, nor is it a hack job. Her strength as a writer is giving Lee the same agency she does to each participant in the story, while still respecting Lee’s place among the greats in the literary cosmos.
The book is not perfect. Parts of it are overwritten. She has an interest in going long on the history of subjects such as true crime novels that probably don’t need as much exploration as she gives them. But that’s a quibble. This is a great book and I’m proud of her work.