Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s elder sister passed away this week in Monroeville, Alabama at 103. Alice Lee and I corresponded while I was writing Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. And her memories helped inform my description of what Monroeville was like when Nelle was growing up.
To a pair of young eyes, Monroeville was just a dusty old hamlet. Even after electric power had arrived in 1923, it still had hung back languidly in the 19th century.
When Nelle was child during the Great Depression during the 1930s, the sawmill whistle at noon announced it was time for the midday meal, and when it blew again at five o’clock, wives checked their progress on making supper. The metallic clink of blacksmiths’ hammers rang from several tree-shaded alleys. Down by the warehouse loading docks near the Manistee & Repton railroad depot, horse- and mule-drawn wagons still carried freight, but they were starting to be outnumbered by internal combustion trucks.
A prized trait among the residents was neighborliness. Gardeners shared “pass around perennials”— cuttings, seeds, and root dividings taken from their flower beds, knitting properties together with undulating blankets of canna lilies, coreopsis, dianthus, gladiolas, phlox and fragrant chocolate vines. No one locked doors; food was brought over in times of sickness or trouble. In hot weather, a friendly wave from a porch beckoned passersby to come on up for a glass of sweet tea. Ladies would get their work done in the morning, then get dressed in mid-afternoon and go to a neighbor’s porch for visiting. News gleaned from church, a local fraternal dinner, family events— and the weather, of course— provided dependable topics for conversation. (With as many as ten households on the same telephone party lines, everyone knew everybody else’s business, anyway.) Some talk was unwelcome in polite company, however, like the goings-on at the Wild Boar, a honky-tonk outside of town; or how a pint of bootleg liquor was for sale anytime from a certain shed in the alley on North Mount Pleasant Street.
At dusk, especially in the late summer, the dry air sparkled with sawdust from the mills. In winter, when the red clay streets turned sloppy, cars splashed along in axle-deep tire ruts like chariots on Roman roads. The week before Christmas, most farmers didn’t mind strangers coming on their land, so long as they cut just one tree for the holidays, respected the fences, and closed the gates when they left. Come nightfall, Monroeville’s sole watchman began his quiet rounds on the square.
— From Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Henry Holt & Co.), pp. 17-18