I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields

iamscout.shields

I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee

by Charles J. Shields

  • VOYA Coding: 4Q4P J
  • Reading level: Ages 9-12
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) (April 1, 2008)
  • ISBN-10: 0805083340
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805083347

Nelle Harper Lee is one of the most noted writers of twentieth-century Southern fiction.  Her first novel, 1961 Pulitzer Prize winner To Kill a Mockingbird, has made her and her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama famous, seemingly overnight.  The film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch was nominated for eight Academy Awards and went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay for Horton Foote, top honors for the art and set directors, and the coveted Best Actor Oscar.  Despite the accolades, however, the intensely independent and private author retreated from public life following the media storm over her work.  Amid pressure to produce an equally superb sophomore effort and a personal and public betrayal by childhood friend and fellow writer Truman Capote, Lee returned to her hometown to settle into a relatively quiet life out of the spotlight.  In this young adult adaptation of his New York Times BestsellerMockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles Shields pieces together letters, interviews, articles, and criticisms to create a compelling and sympathetic biography of the writer, her family, and the novel itself.  Along the way, Lee’s friendship with Capote is explored along with the impact of his jealousy and eventual betrayal.  Shields’ paints Capote as egotistical and paranoid, and the relationship between the two writers remains difficult to comprehend.  Throughout, Lee is portrayed as caring, gregarious, and full of life.  Despite her intense loyalty and admiration of Capote, he remains unreliable and self-centered, and treats Lee’s success as a personal affront.  While Lee’s association with Capote certainly benefited her during her early writing years, his association with her had a positive impact on his career as well.  Without Lee, there is little doubt that Capote would never have been able to conduct any sizable amount of research for In Cold Truth, and while he does mention her in his dedication, he fails to give any acknowledgment to her role as “assistant researchist.”  Based on Shields’ work, it appears that Capote’s betrayal played as much of a role in her subsequent disappearance from the literary scene as the pressure from the media and publishing world did.

At its best, I am Scout is a vivid portrait of an American literary icon, complete with history, personality, strife, and redemption.  Shields does an excellent job of demonstrating the ways in which Lee’s life in Monroeville is reflected and often mimicked in her literary work.  He presents the entire Lee family almost with pride for their achievements, and Nelle comes across as a hard worker, dedicated friend, and devoted daughter.  Though it is clear that Capote played an important role in Nelle’s childhood and development as a writer, in some ways this biography becomes too much about him.  Readers may come away from the book wishing they had learned less about Capote and more about Lee.  Since this is a young adult adaptation, I do wonder how it differs from Shields’ original work.  Anyone who is a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird will find something in this biography to add to their understanding and love of the novel.

See also:

mockingbirdshields1Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields

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