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Jesmyn Ward
February 24, 2016 at 02:00 PM EST

National Book Award-winning novelist Jesmyn Ward weighs in on the powerful and complicated legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird’s Harper Lee, who died last week at 89.

Readers around the world will mourn Harper Lee’s passing, and I’m sure the people of Monroeville, Alabama, will have myriad personal reasons to feel life without Lee looms bleakly. She was giving and kind, they might say. She had a wicked laugh and a sharp mind, another might suggest, while a third might chime: She saw and responded to the humanity of each and every one of us. 

I never knew Harper Lee personally. Sometime during my 20s, I fantasized about taking off on a road trip to see her in Monroeville, which is around 170 miles away from my small Southern hometown. I’m sure many fans of her work have made this pilgrimage in the hope they might glimpse her, this woman who wrote such a seminal work of American literature. But I refrained, mostly because I understood and appreciated Lee’s wishes: to live a life with privacy and anonymity. To live the life of her own choosing. 

I never made that journey to Monroeville because, as a small-town denizen myself, I understood the town would encircle her, that they would misdirect fans, sending them off in the wrong direction, away from Ms. Lee. I understood they would protect her. Even though many small Southern towns can be frustrating, backward places where those who are different are made to feel their difference acutely, small Southern towns are also contradictions. They are often fiercely protective of their prodigal sons and daughters, of their freaks and outcasts, of those who took root and grew up in their piney stands, their raw fields. And I knew that even if one of their own had taken them to task as Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird, by reflecting their truest and sometimes ugly selves back to them, that the town would still react like a wayward parent to a truth-telling child. I knew that they would still protect Lee.

To read the rest of Ward’s piece, pick up the March 4 issue of Entertainment Weekly on newsstands Friday, or subscribe digitally at ew.com/allaccess.

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