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February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

“Mockingbird” Mysteries Revealed at UMASS Boston Big Read

Since publication of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1960, a cloak of mystery has surrounded the book’s reclusive author, Harper Lee. But some of that shroud was clearly lifted Wednesday in a series of events at UMass Boston and WUMB Radio, presented as part of The Big Read of Eastern Massachusetts.

Charles Shields, whose New York Times Bestseller book “Mockingbird” is the only biographical portrait of Harper Lee ever written, was the special guest at a taping of “Commonwealth Journal” at 10 AM. The show, recorded in front of a live audience, will air on WUMB Radio 91.9 on March 30th at 7:00pm. The show’s host Janis Pryor asked various questions of Mr. Shields, including one about Ms. Lee’s long and convoluted relationship with Truman Capote, who was actually a childhood friend of Ms. Lee’s in Monroeville, Alabama.

Shields reported that Capote was the inspiration for the character Dill in the book. Dill is the young boy living at his aunt’s house, across the street from the Finch house where the book’s narrator, Scout, lives. In the character Scout, Harper Lee painted an image of herself when she was growing up in the racially charged deep South of the 1930s. In fact, said Mr. Shields, “Many details in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are based on Ms. Lee’s own recollections of her early life during the Great Depression in the rural South.” The fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, is actually patterned after her hometown of Monroeville.

Then, at 1 PM, Mr. Shields conducted a lecture to a large audience that included all of the students from the Greater Egleston High School in Roxbury who are in the process of reading “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Greater Egleston is one of four schools actively involved in reading and studying “To Kill a Mockingbird” for The Big Read. Others include Hingham High School, Tobin K-8 in Roxbury, and the Boston Community Leadership Academy in Brighton.

At this event, Mr. Shields answered the question of why Ms. Lee, after writing such a runaway best-selling book, never wrote another. He said that she realized she really didn’t want to be famous, got tired of answering the same questions hundreds of times, and actually had some insecurities, telling a friend, “Once you’ve reached the top of the mountain, there is only one direction to go.” She still lives in Monroeville, has not granted an interview request since 1965, and avoids any discussion of her immensely popular book.

In all, nearly 40 Boston schools, library branches, and community service organization are participating in The Big Read with events that range from essay and art contests to book discussion groups and screenings of the Academy Award winning motion picture version starring Gregory Peck. A complete listing of all the scheduled events of The Big Read of Eastern Massachusetts is available at wumb.org/thebigread.

Both events were attended by a group of Egyptian visitors invited to the United States by the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs for a planning session to see The Big Read in action before they present their own Big Read programs in Egypt this fall.

The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading to the center of American culture. The NEA presents The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and in cooperation with Arts Midwest.