Two of my favorite authors have died in the past weeks – Harper Lee and Pat Conroy. They both were lanterns into southern life, showing the world our love, anguish, bigotry, eccentricity, manners and eccentricities. Yet, they showed all of humanity these same attributes and asked us why must we have these barriers to each other?
Harper Lee wrote the best and most impactful novel I have ever read about the south in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She created through Scout’s eyes a hero in her father, Atticus Finch, that she had to learn how great and brave a man could be. She had written a previous manuscript, which was initially not accepted, but it was released this past year as “Go set the Watchman.” I have this book, but have not read it, as it paints a different version of Atticus, a journey I do not want to take.
In her Pulitzer Prize winning Mockingbird, we learn what racism under Jim Crow looks like. She sneaks it up on you, so by the time the reader understands what is going on, they are hooked and ready to take up for Atticus and Tom Robinson, just like Scout and Jem did. I have written before about the novel and movie, but let me repeat my favorite parts. First, when Atticus leaves the court room after losing the case, the minister admonishes Scout to stand like everyone else is because “Your father is passing.”
The other is when the female neighbor is consoling Jem after the loss. She notes “There are people who are put on this earth to do our unpleasant tasks. Your father is one of them.” Yet, that is what makes the book so marvelous, we are seeing Atticus and racism through a child’s lens. And, it also confirms what is noted in the Rogers and Hammerstein “South Pacific” that bigotry has to be carefully taught. Scout and Jem have been taught not to be bigoted.
As for Conroy, he put in words stories and characters who make the south live. Critics have noted that he has written novels around his father being a very abusive man. It is true that many of his novels, like “The Great Santini,” “The Prince of Tides,” of “South of Broad,” have elements of his father therein, with Santini being a thinly veiled biography. Yet, his books are much more than that.
My first Conroy book was “The Lords of Discipline” which is about a young cadet being asked to look after the first black cadet at a southern military school, which looks and smells like The Citadel, where he went to college. I normally like to read the book before seeing the movie, but the latter lead me to the book. The Bear was the grandfatherly mentor at the school referring to his mentees as “his lambs.” And, he called the lead character Bubba, which is a nickname for brother, usually because a younger sibling could not pronounce brother.
“The Water is Wide” is great auto-biographical read and was made into a movie called “Conrack,” which is how the Daufuskie Island children, who spoke Gullah, pronounced Conroy’s name. He set out to teach these kids how to read and expose them to new things, rather than just shepherd them along. Eventually, he was fired for being rebellious, as the principal did not want these kids getting aspirations.
He also penned “My Losing Season,” which is a true story of his basketball playing days for a very poor and inconsistent coach. Reading this book led me to a realization that I actually saw Conroy play basketball in the mid-1960s, when The Citadel played Jacksonville University. He spoke of the players I saw for the Jacksonville team, as my father would take us to the games and this is where I learned what The Citadel was.
Yet, my favorite is “The Prince of Tides,” which also was made into a movie with Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner and Nick Nolte. The movie was good, but left out the best example of a character in a Conroy novel. The grandfather was so religious, every Easter he would drag a cross around town to suffer like Jesus did. When he got too old to do this, the family put the cross on roller skates, so he could wheel it around. That is classic eccentricity.
If you have not read them, please give them a chance. The movies are excellent, but the books have so much more to offer. These two will be missed.