When I heard yesterday that Harper Lee died, I closed my eyes and saw Maycomb, Ala.
My favorite novels, especially my favorite Southern novels, have a strong sense of place. I have a clear picture in my mind of Maycomb, a fictional town obviously drawn heavily from a real place.
I can see the sprawling front porch of the Finch house and the gloomy Radley mansion down the street.
I can see the streets and alleys and yards where Jem and Scout and Truman -- I mean Dill -- ran and played and hid. I can picture the trees they climbed and the knothole in the oak where Boo left them gum and Indian-head pennies and a pocketknife.
In fact, I can even sketch out a map of Maycomb, showing the school over there behind the Finch house, and the courthouse down the street in the center of town.
I went online and found an actual map somebody had put together from "To Kill a Mockingbird," and it was almost exactly how I had envisioned it.
Now that's some storytelling. The place remains so clear in readers' minds because they truly cared about the people there and what they were doing.
In that way, art imitates life.
After all these years, Maycomb is almost as vivid in my memory as LaFayette, the Alabama town where I grew up.
And that's saying something.
I lived out in the country, but my friend Stanley lived in town, in a gigantic old brick castle on a hill. His bedroom was in the turret. I'm not kidding.
His father was a farmer, and his mother was a lawyer.
One time, when I was maybe 9 or 10, my mother dropped me off at baseball practice and left. I was supposed to spend the night at Stanley's house, and she was under the impression that his mother would be picking us up afterward.
But when practice was over, we heard a roar coming down the street. It was Stanley's slightly older brother, Mac, driving a one-seat dune buggy with a steel basket welded to the back.
Stanley and I climbed in the basket and Mac roared off, crisscrossing down back streets toward the castle, so as not to be detected by adults.
When somebody asks
me if I enjoyed growing up in a small Southern town, I think immediately of that day and I answer with an emphatic yes.
I imagine that I felt much the same way Jem and Scout did, on most days harboring a sense of curiosity and wonder that was greater than the creeping suspicion that the world was really harder and meaner than your parents were telling you it was.
As with the children in "To Kill a Mockingbird," I could feel the undercurrent of race.
I wondered why there were no black players on my baseball team, and one day I asked a coach. It was a good question, I thought. Hank Aaron was black.
Those boys didn't have birth certificates, my coach said, because they were all born in the back seats of cars.
I told my mother this, and her eyes burned with an anger I'd never seen.
That stuff sticks with you. The good and the bad, it sticks with you.
Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, executive editor, firstname.lastname@example.org.