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On The Trail For Harper Lee

In her last in-depth interview about writing, Harper Lee talked about her hometown, Monroeville, Ala., in 1964, telling Roy Newquist:

We simply entertained each other by talking. It's quite a thing, if you've never been in or known a small Southern town. The people are not particularly sophisticated, naturally. They're not worldly wise in any way. But they tell you a story whenever they see you. We're oral types — we talk.

Sunday is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird," and Monroeville is still a place rich with stories and storytellers. Lee's oldest sister, Miss Alice Lee, 98, has been a lawyer in town for the last six decades at Bugg, Barnett & Lee, where her father, Mr. A.C. Lee, the inspiration for Atticus Finch, worked. There is a saying in Monroeville that if you don't know the answer, "Go ask Alice."

Mel's Dairy Dream now stands where the Lee home used to be, next door to an empty lot where Truman Capote's childhood home once stood. I began writing "Up Close: Harper Lee," a biography for teenagers, in 2007, and Lee's silence made me work that much harder. Lee, who goes by her first name, Nelle, doesn't grant interviews. But I knew I couldn't sit in Los Angeles Googling "Harper Lee," and so I went to the well of stories in Monroeville.

There, I met Capote's cousin, Jennings Carter — called "Big Boy" as a child — who, along with Lee's late brother, Edwin, is thought to be the inspiration for Jem. Carter's arm hangs at an 90-degree angle to his body, just like Jem's. As he came into the room at the courthouse, he said, "I don't know what I can tell you that hasn't been said before." But then he told a story of how Capote always had to be the teacher when they played school so he could whack him and Nelle with the ruler for getting the wrong answer.

Carter also described the sweetness of his older cousin, Sook Faulk, who inspired Capote's story, "A Christmas Memory," and how she preferred the company of children to adults and always gave them a little pocket money for a soda or a double feature. And, yes, Sook did send a fruitcake to President Roosevelt but never got a thank-you note.

Jennings said that Nelle "was courageous. We didn't even know she was a girl. She'd ball up her fists and hit you like a man." He said Mr. Lee gave Capote a pocket dictionary, and Capote would carry a notebook to write down descriptions when he and Big Boy hunted rabbits and squirrels.

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