Thursday, April 22, 2010

Also Known as Harper, by Ann Haywood Leal

Harper Lee is a fifth-grader who can remember better times. Times when Daddy was nice, didn't drink, and still lived with them. Times when Mama read to her and her younger brother Hemingway, especially Mama's own favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, over and over. And always, Harper Lee has loved to write poetry. Simple, truthful, it has always poured out of her. Writing poetry is what she's always done in response to life, and she knows, with no arrogance or false modesty, that her poems are good.

But then came the stillbirth of a new baby, Flannery, and that was when things seemed to slip. Daddy took to drink, got mean, and left. Mama, who never finished high school, tries to support them as a cleaning woman and never quite makes ends meet. Hemingway has his waiting time outside every day, when he sits and watches for Daddy to return. And then the family is evicted, arriving home one day to find their belongings spread all over the yard. The worst thing, though, is that after they find a motel room to call home, Harper has to watch Hemingway during the day and can no longer go to school. And that means she can't achieve her main ambition: to enter the poetry contest and get up on stage and read her poems out loud.

The gentle southern voice is a strength; we are shown, not told, that the book is set in the South. I also like the ways in which the characters rise above stereotypes. Harper and Hemingway meet a young boy, his mute older sister, and a disabled woman, all living in poverty and on the margins of society, yet these are more than the almost-cliche "quirky band of characters" that populate some novels. All have their own ingenious, unexpected ways of coping, their own gifts on display, their ways of surprising the reader, and even the insufferable Winnie Mae Early, daughter of the ex-landlord, shows a very human side. The clear message is that homelessness and tragedy happen to real flesh-and-blood people.

Though the book seems to want to give me more hope for the fate of homeless people than I quite dare have, Harper's discovery that missing the poetry contest doesn't mean never having a poetry reading is believable, and the ending is hopeful without being pat. Definitely recommended.


Bish Denham said...

Another book to add to my list! Sound great.

Vijaya said...

Oh, these topics interest me so I'll definitely be reading this book. Thanks for the review.

Marcia said...

Bish -- And the TBR pile grows...:)

Vijaya -- I think you'll like it.

Ruth said...

Thanks for this review--I, too, am adding it to my TBR list. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorites, too.

Andrea Vlahakis said...

Thanks, Marcia--on my list. :)

Marcia said...

Ruth -- TKAM was one of the assigned books in high school English that I most liked. I enjoyed how these characters found solace in stories and words.

Andrea -- As the online community grows, I now get all my book recommendations by word of mouth. Except it's NOT word of mouth, it's word of blog, or word of blueboards. :)

Sliding on the Edge said...

The book sounds great. I've got to get more paper for my reading list!

Marcia said...

Lee -- I have several lists of books in my office. But maybe what I really need is a bigger nightstand. Or a higher ceiling? :)

TerryLynnJohnson said...

sounds like a great book. thanks.

Marcia said...

Hope you enjoy it, Terry Lynn.

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