Memoir recounts how ‘Mockingbird’ mirrored father’s case in 1938

To Kill a Mockingbird has inspired readers and critics for decades. But what inspired Harper Lee to write her novel? Joseph Madison Beck suggests he may have the answer.

In this fast-moving memoir, Beck recounts how his father, a small-town lawyer, is thrown into the 1938 trial of a black man accused of raping a local white woman in a southern Alabama town. His taking the case puts everything he loves in jeopardy: his law practice, reputation, safety and any future with the woman he hopes to marry.

Despite a tireless defense, he is beaten down in the courts, even after evidence that the woman had never been violated or harmed — that she was still a virgin. As racial tensions build, memories of the South’s role in slavery and defiance in the face of change echo through the pages.

The parallels to Mockingbird resound throughout the recounting of the scandalous case. But Harper Lee was only 12 years old at the time of the trial, and in correspondence with Beck through her publicist shortly before she died, Lee said she did not recall the case. Beck cites widespread news stories of the time and suggests that Lee’s father, an Alabama lawyer and newspaper editor, may have spoken of the case and left threads of memories that inspired Lee, later in life, to write her story based in a similar time and setting.

Inspiration for Mockingbird or no, the memoir stands on its own as a powerful telling of injustice in a less tolerant time.

Book review

‘My Father & Atticus Finch’ by Joseph Madison Beck; W.W. Norton, 218 pages, $25.95.