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Appreciation: Harper Lee

Harper Lee passed away on Friday at age 89. Almost anyone who has sat through a high school English class has read her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It is one of the most well-known and widely read books of the last century. The novel looks into the lives of the residents of a small Alabama town as they deal with racial injustice.

The novel was released in 1960 and spent 98 weeks on the New York Times best-sellers list. And it received the Pulitzer Prize for best fiction a year after its release. But the novel’s success reaches far beyond that. The novel has been translated into more than 40 languages, and more than 30 million copies have been sold.

Since its release, the novel has been a favorite of both avid and reluctant readers. It’s been on countless required reading lists. The book has never gone out of print. Its powerful message on racism and its memorable quotes make Harper Lee one of the most famous American authors ever.

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” set in 1930s Alabama, follows the story of Atticus, Scout and Jem Finch. Atticus is defending a black man in a trial during a time when many of the people around them were deeply racist. Racism has changed since the 1930s, but the novel’s message still resonates.

One of the story’s most powerful messages is the importance of understanding others. Lee wrote, “(…) before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” It causes the people to think about right and wrong.

As the characters are forced to think about their values and the way they think about people, so is the reader. None of the characters are perfect, but they’re realistic, which is arguably one of the reasons the novel has been a favorite for generations.

Much of “To Kill A Mockingbird” was based on Lee’s life, which contributes to the relatable characters of the novel.

Born in 1926, in Monroeville, Ala., Lee was the youngest of four siblings. She lived during a time when Jim Crow laws were still followed in Southern states.

Growing up, Lee was considered a tomboy, much like the story’s narrator, Scout Finch. Lee’s father and older sisters were lawyers, as was Atticus, Scout’s father and one of the main characters in the book.

As a lawyer, Lee’s father had to defend two black men on trial for murdering a store owner; both men were hanged. Due to this, her father stopped practicing as a criminal attorney. He became a title lawyer, dealing with property.

Lee attended the all-female Huntingdon College, where she stood out, choosing to focus most of her time on her studies. She transferred to the University of Alabama, and spent a summer at Oxford University.

At the urging of her family, Lee entered law school, though she preferred spending her time on the school newspaper. Later, she dropped out of law school and moved to New York City to pursue her writing.

Lee didn’t have luck on her first try getting published – she and an editor worked together for two and a half years until the final draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was written.

Until 2015, Lee had only released one novel. Then “Go Set a Watchman,” the original manuscript of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was discovered and published. It depicts an older Scout visiting a racist Atticus, and caused controversy with many devoted fans.

Though laws have changed since the conception of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and now people of all races are equally protected under the law, the novel’s popularity and importance in society never fades.

Since Lee wrote from the point of view of a child, Scout grew up throughout the novel. Scout learned that not everyone makes judgments based on what is necessarily the virtuous decision – people make decisions based on what their peers will say about them.

Lee’s story teaches its readers to do the right thing, whether or not other people support this. Gossip flies around town and Jem and Scout are taunted by classmates, and even by the adults they trust. But the Finches continue to stand up for what they know is right.

The story is very important for teens because as Scout grows up, she becomes more aware of the people around her. She is forced to realize what other people think. As a child, she understands that what other people think and say aren’t necessarily always right, but she must decide for herself which is the moral decision.

Lee wrote the novel in a way that leaves the reader to question the normal order of things – she doesn’t write in a way that definitively tells exactly how things should be.

The ending is neither happy nor sad, but it leaves room for conversation, and it sparks ideas.

Lee inspired many, as hers is a novel that encourages empathy and open-minded thinking. She accomplished in one novel what many hope to accomplish in their life’s work.

Though Harper Lee has passed away, her thoughts and ideas still live on through her writing.

As she wrote in one of the most memorable lines in the novel, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Catherine Reed is a freshman at Orchard Park High School.