Thursday, July 16, 2009

Homeless: Also Known As Harper by Ann Haywood Leal

I have been Harper Lee Morgan
Mostly all my life.
The way I figure
That name has soaked itself into my bones.
Lately, though,
I've been figuring on something different.

Harper's name is part of her personal heritage, a gift from her literature-loving mother, who also named her brother Hemingway and her stillborn baby sister Flannery. Having heard her mother read To Kill a Mockingbird thirty-six times, as marked, like height lines, on their kitchen door frame, the words of Harper Lee are part of her mental furniture, and her poetry, written as blank verse soliloquys, is her refuge and her hope for the future.

But her father, driven to alcoholism by the death of their baby and the daily stress of surviving in a marginal job, has left them, and her weary and saddened mother can only add another dreary housekeeping job to her long work week in a vain attempt to keep up with the rent. And then, despite her mother's best efforts, Harper Lee comes home from school to find their belongings tossed out in the yard and her little family homeless.

Harper's mom moves them temporarily into a single motel room, but while she looks for work, Harper Lee has to stay home from school to watch her six-year-old brother while her mother works. Having to miss the school poetry contest, Harper Lee despairs over her future until she meets other displaced people who live in a tent community nearby. Through their example of quiet resourcefulness, Harper's confidence grows and with the help of her new friends, the family finds a home and hope for the future. As she writes,

Bad things never
Stay bad for long.
They can be taken
Right over by something good.
The thing is,
You've got to be watching out
For those good things.

In an impressive first novel, Ann Haywood Leal's Also Known As Harper (Henry Holt, 2009) builds striking individual characters, young and old, who are not what they first seem, echoing author Harper Lee's theme that understanding comes from seeing the real person behind the appearance, the facade, the stereotype on the surface. A novel with great heart and a sensitive but sturdy main character who reveals her own heart in her own poetic voice.

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