By the time we finished our exhausting tour of the U.S.S. Alabama on Day 5, rush hour was on and we were still over two hours away from our hotel. We had one more stop on our itinerary that I was tempted to cut because it required a sizable digression off I-65 and I figured all the businesses would be closed by the time we arrived. Getting to our hotel in Montgomery before nightfall would’ve been a plus, but unlikely regardless of whether or not we stopped on the way. On the other hand, it’s not as though we’re in the area all the time and will have multiple opportunities to drop in. The more attractions we postpone to some other future theoretical vacation, the more of those attractions we’ll probably never see.
So by a unanimous vote of 2-0 we threw scheduling comfort to the wind, temporarily abandoned the interstate, and drove the 30-odd miles out of our way to a brief stopover in Monroeville, hometown of author Harper Lee. You may remember her name from headlines last year.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
This year’s trip began as a simple idea: visit ostensibly scenic New Orleans. Indianapolis to New Orleans is a fourteen-hour drive. Between our workplace demands and other assorted personal needs, we negotiated a narrow seven-day time frame to travel there and back again. We researched numerous possible routes, cities, and towns to visit along the way in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. We came up with a long, deep list of potential stops, but tried to leave room for improvisation…
In school my teachers rarely assigned us the famous books that were ostensibly required reading in all other schools nationwide, so I’d never read To Kill a Mockingbird until this very trip, for which I brought it along as my official summer reading. My wife read it in school ages ago, and even my son had read it in school and attended a live performance on a field trip to a local theater. The two of them had enjoyed discussing it between themselves while I sat on the sidelines and tried to tune out spoilers. Once I finished it, I felt relieved, blown away, and less of an outcast.
It’s so thoroughly head-and-tails above 90% of what I normally read or watch that part of me now wants to burn a lot of my possessions and just become a hardcore literary snob and read absolutely nothing but books at least this great or greater. I made a point of saving the movie till after I’d finished reading. The book was better, but I’ll spare you the obsolete nitpicking over What They Left Out.
We arrived in Monroeville on July 15, 2015, the day after the widely publicized release of Go Set a Watchman, the author’s previously unreleased prequel. Reviews were mixed, particularly among those bothered by the, um, lack of character continuity between the two novels. I have no plans to check it out, partly because some of the obtuse comments told me all I needed to know. Complaining about Atticus’ disturbing racism in Watchman in my mind is like revisiting George Lucas’ original 1974 draft for The Star Wars and giving it a D-minus because the main character Annikin Starkiller doesn’t match anyone in the movie. Of course they don’t synch up, because both were never meant to coexist as released works in the first place.
Regardless, I can understand the excitement of many longtime Harper Lee fans eager to read anything by her that they’d never read before, even if it amounted to a 278-page outtake. Monroeville was happy for her, to say the least.
The major related attraction in town is the Monroe County Museum, where they’ve restored and preserved the original courtroom that served as the basis for the set design in Robert Mulligan’s film adaptation. Sadly, we arrived well after closing time — for the Museum and the entirety of Monroeville’s town square.
It took us a full lap around the square to find the best outdoor tribute: bronze statues of what we presumed to be Scout, Dill, and Jem relaxing in a park.
The scandalous truth revealed: Scout’s copy of the book is blank. Or maybe she’s read it so many times that she has it memorized by heart and doesn’t need the words in front of her anymore.
A nearby plaque celebrates the life and works of Atticus Finch, noble hero in the official Mockingbird canon. Alt-universe Finches and any dissimilar, discontinued counterparts from the Mockingbird Expanded Universe can go fly a kite.
Behind the courthouse are a few small old buildings that I think were sets used in their annual Mockingbird performances. Maybe. I’m assuming, anyway.
Down the street from the courthouse is a site commemorating the town’s other notable literary figure, In Cold Blood author Truman Capote. I haven’t read that one yet, but I recently saw the Criterion edition of the movie and am a bit more curious about it now. Robert Blake was sufficiently creepy, but seeing a young Herschel from The Walking Dead as a suave, narcissistic murderer weirded me out for days. The vintage Capote interviews were enlightening after a fashion.
Unfortunately the physical remains of Capote’s memories amount to this partial stone wall. Harper Lee’s own childhood home was razed ages ago and replaced with a restaurant called Mel’s Dairy Dream. They were closed upon our arrival. Judging by the state of their real estate, we weren’t sure they were still in business, but someone reviewed them on TripAdvisor two weeks ago.
It was a long drive for a short stop, but Monroeville’s unique place in history was a worthwhile draw for us, locked doors notwithstanding.
To be continued!
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]