One night in January 1940 it was so cold in Monroeville, Alabama that Harper Lee’s father, A. C. Lee, was forced to throw extra coal in the furnace to keep their little bungalow warm on South Alabama Avenue. A bitter north wind rattled the strings of Christmas lightbulbs still hanging in trees on the courthouse square.
Next door to the Lees was the Faulk residence, where Truman Capote— later the model for Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird had lived during elementary school with his elderly relatives, the three Faulk sisters and their bachelor brother. But Truman’s parents had changed their minds and decided he belonged in a boarding school in New York City instead. (“How come my folks don’t want me?” Dill says in the novel.)
The Faulks were just getting ready for bed that wintery night when they heard frantic pounding on the front door. Jennie Faulk came downstairs expecting to find a lunatic on their porch. To her shock, she discovered that the kitchen was on fire and a neighbor was trying to force his way in to help.
Nelle heard the siren go off on top of the city hall. Then the volunteer firemen arrived, hurriedly pulling on old their overcoats, gloves and hats. The Faulks, stumbling in bathrobes and slippers, hurried through the shouting, gesticulating men, abandoning their home to the fire hose and the axe.
Nelle watched as flames pressed against the windows, shattered the glass, and exhaled like the breath of a dragon into the cold air. The Faulks’ place was a turn-of-the-century Victorian home, a capacious, high-ceilinged dwelling with an entryway decorated with potted ferns; a formal parlor; a dining room with china cabinets displaying a collection of cut glass; a spacious kitchen where the Negro cook “Little Bit” rustled up enormous meals; several bedrooms; and a fireplace in every room.
Soon the whole house was a pyre, and the wind-driven flames roared through the trees toward the Lees’ property, less than fifteen yards away. Nelle’s mother feared the worst and had to be calmed as her husband and neighbors guided her to a house across the street. Firefighters swung their hoses toward the Lee’s home when paint on the south side of their white bungalow began to blister and slough off from the heat.
The struggle lasted until 3 am. Come dawn, the Faulk residence, where Jennie Faulk had been known to welcome any “smear of kin” was a carcass of blackened walls and bony icicles. Even their smokehouse, stuffed with cured hams, bacon and bagged sausage hanging from rafters, had collapsed.
The exhausted firemen trudged home. One of them removed his waterlogged wool overcoat and hung it on a hook outside his front door. Within a couple of hours, it was frozen solid. He propped it on the porch steps where it stood for days, ghostly and uninhabited to the delight of passing children.
Harper Lee was in middle school when it happened, just a little older than Scout. But the fire and the community’s response probably later inspired the scene of Miss Maudie’s house burning down in To Kill a Mockingbird.
At the front door, we saw fire spewing from Miss Maudie’s dining room windows. As if to confirm what we saw, the town fire siren wailed up to the scale to a treble pitch and remained there, screaming…. We stood watching the street fill with men and cars while fire silently devoured Miss Maudie’s house. ‘Why don’t they hurry, why don’t they hurry…’ muttered Jem.
We saw why. The old fire truck, killed by the cold, was being pushed from town by a crowd of men.
Authors often draw on their own experiences to create fiction. But the better ones, such as Lee, double the importance of their experiences by giving them intensified meaning.
In the novel, the town’s response to the fire at Miss Maudie’s house is heroic— neighbors looking out for each other, even risking their lives. And among the volunteers that night are a few men, no doubt, who later serve on the jury at Tom Robinson’s trial. But when Atticus implores them, “For God’s sake, do your duty” none has the courage to save an innocent man. Fear of breaking social taboos turns otherwise brave men into cowards.
That irony isn’t accidental— it’s part of the art of Lee’s storytelling.
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