ABOVE PHOTO: Interior of Monroeville Courthouse
By Renée S. Gordon
“Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.” –Plato
Alabama is renowned for geographic and biodiversity. In fact, the term “biological diversity” was first used in a publication by Edward. O. Wilson in 1988. Born in Birmingham, the “Father of Sociobiology” has won numerous awards for his writings including two Pulitzer Prizes.
Scott Duncan’s “Southern Wonders” provides a comprehensive and accessible overview of Alabama’s geographic story. It is both epic and dramatic, dating back to the Precambrian Period, featuring continental drifts, the creation of land formations and the formation of the Gulf of Mexico Basin. The state’s warm, moist climate, extensive number of long sunlit days and land composition are responsible for the area’s diversity, one of the greatest in the world. The state has been documented as having 4,533 species, 64 land-based ecosystems and 77,000-miles of waterways. Alabama also boasts the greatest diversity of carnivorous plants and restoration ecologists are taking advantage of the Increasing public awareness of the importance of biodiversity. Wildnative.com
“Sometime reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” –Jean-Luc Godard
A Delta Safari Tour of the Mobile Tensaw Delta (MTD) is an exciting and informative way to experience Alabama’s biological legacy. The 250,000-acre MTD is often referred to as the North American Amazon and ranks first in aquatic biodiversity in the nation. Tours are guided and you’re almost guaranteed to see one of the more than 75,000 alligators in the state. Various species are pointed out as well as plants such as water hemlock, the most toxic plant on the planet. The MTD has been featured on television and in magazines including National Geographic. 5rds.com
Five Rivers Delta Resource Center is an 81-acre complex located in Spanish Fort. It interprets the Mobile Bay experience through film, exhibitions and indoor and outdoor activities. The names of the rivers, best recalled as BATS Mobile, the Blakely, Apalachee, Tensaw, Spanish and Mobile flow into the bay here. Visitors cross all five rivers when they go over the bay from Spanish Fort to Mobile.
The Hampton Inn in Daphne, Alabama provides perfect accommodations in the Mobile region and experience nature on the bay. It is the only area hotel situated on the bay and rooms have panoramic views of Mobile Bay, D’Olive Creek or Gator Alley Boardwalk. Complimentary amenities include a hot breakfast, WIFI, parking, outdoor pool and sunset reception. The hotel has been awarded the Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence. hamptoninn3.hilton.com/en/hotels/alabama/hampton-inn-mobile-east-bay-daphne or natureonthebay.com
Blue Gill Restaurant s situated on the waterfront on the Mobile Bay Causeway. The Blue Gill has an award-winning menu featuring their famous flaming oysters. Live music is presented six nights a week and is a regular winner of the “Best Place to Hear Live Music”. The restaurant was also designated one of the “Best Bars in America” by Esquire Magazine. bluegillrestaurant.com
“The world is shaped by two things — stories told and the memories they leave behind.” –Vera Nazarian
Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo has been widely publicized as “the little zoo that could”. It opened in 1989 as a private venue, Zooland Animal Park. The zoo is handicapped accessible and showcases more than 500 animals, shows, one-on-one encounters, and concession and picnic facilities. During the 1997 and 1998 hurricanes, the zoo evacuated the animals and relocated 24 miles to higher ground. It was the first zoo to mount a complete evacuation during a hurricane. Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is open year round with seasonal programs. alabamagulfcoastzoo.org
“The simple fact of being good does not prevent misery, heartache, loneliness, death, regret. Life is tough and not necessarily fair, and if a fiction writer tries to tell you otherwise, then you’ll find them on a different shelf – a shelf marked fairy tales” –Fannie Flagg
Magnolia Springs’ earliest settlers were Creoles who arrived in the vicinity in the 1620s followed by sporadic settlements in the early 18th-century. The awarding of Spanish land grants and the founding of Fort Morgan in the early 1800s brought people into the area. A village, named simply after the trees that grew there and the flowing springs that provided water, was laid out in 1891. The Magnolia River became a transportation hub for goods to and from local industries and in 1916 mail delivery by river was established and it continues as the final year-round boat service in the country. By the late 1800s Magnolia Springs was a resort area and the location of an infamous clubhouse that supported gambling and a bordello. Five residences for ladies of the evening were paid for with state funds. townofmagnoliasprings.org
There is something magical about Magnolia Springs and Fannie Flagg manages to capture that mysticism in “A Redbird Christmas”. Fannie lived and wrote here and incorporated townspeople, using their real names, into the novel as residents of the mythical Lost River. Local residents assure visitors that fully 85 percent of the story is factual. Self-guided tours of the town include locations mentioned in the novel and several historic sites including the Community Hall on Oak Street.
No visit is complete without meandering to Jesse’s for a meal and camaraderie. The restaurant is situated inside what was once Moore Brothers General Merchandise and the model for Ray’s Grocery store in the book. The store was constructed in 1922 and closed its doors in 1993. When it reopened as a restaurant the owners honored Jesse King a former employee of Moore Bros. who never missed a day of work during his 60-years of employment. Jesse’s takes dining to a new level with a menu crafted from local products. Dishes to die for include Airline Breast of Chicken, Diver Scallops and Shrimp and Grits. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Jessesrestaurant.com
“Think of a story as a mnemonic device for complex ideas.” Annette Simmons
No city on our literary tour is more renowned than Monroeville, the model for the fictional Maycomb in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Her novel was published on July 11, 1960, received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961 and in 2008 was voted the “Greatest Novel of All Time”. The book has sold millions of copies, after its initial publication of a mere 5,000 copies, and has been translated into 40 languages. In July Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” was published 55-years after TKMB. The book, though written first, takes the form of a sequel. Scout is now an adult living in New York City who returns to her childhood home. The release of the second book boosted sales of TKMB by nearly 7,000 percent.
Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28, 1926, one of four siblings. Her father was a lawyer, state legislator and newspaperman and her mother was a recluse who suffered from mental illness. After college, in 1949, she moved to New York City where she resumed her childhood friendship with Truman Capote, after whom Dill in the novel is patterned. She served as his assistant as he worked on a series of articles about a murder in Kansas that would ultimately become Capote’s masterpiece, “In Cold Blood”.
Horton Foote adapted the book as a screenplay in 1962. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards and won three including Best Actor for Gregory Peck’s outstanding portrayal of Atticus Finch and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film was designated one of the 100 Greatest American Movies in 1998 by American Film Institute.
There are several self-guided tours, “Walk Monroeville,” “Monroeville in the 1930s” and “Travel the Birdhouse Trail- The Monroeville Experience.” The Birdhouse Trail was created to celebrate the novel’s 50th anniversary. Individual birdhouses, decorated by local artists and community groups, are situated in front of local sites and businesses. Monroeville’s Chamber of Commerce’s booklet, “Walk Monroeville,” highlights thirty important sites including the locations of the homes of Capote and Lee. Thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Monroeville annually to visit the sites depicted in the novel. Lee not only set TKMB in a real place, she based the events in the book on real incidents and real people. monroecountyal.com
Tom Robinson, the black man accused of rape is a character in a situation believed to be based on two noted cases from the 1930s, the 1931 Scottsboro Boys and the 1933 Monroeville case of Walter Lett. Lett was accused and convicted of sexually assaulting a white woman, Naomi Lowery. The jurors convicted him but no one in the town believed he was guilty. He was sentenced to electrocution but the townspeople petitioned and pleaded with the governor to overturn the verdict. The governor interceded and had Lett’s sentence commuted to a mental institute. He died two years later of tuberculosis contracted in prison.
The reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley was based on Alfred “Son” Boulware, Jr. a neighbor of the Lees. As a teen Alfred and two friends broke into a store on the town square to steal cigarettes in 1932. After apprehension he was to be sentenced to reform school but his father interceded and promised the judge that if he allowed him to take Alfred home he would never be a problem again. The judge agreed and Son was taken home and was not allowed out unaccompanied again. Town residents say that he was in no way impaired and would sneak out and his friends would sneak in to have him help with their schoolwork. Alfred died in 1952.
Harper Lee acknowledged that Dill was actually her next-door neighbor and childhood playmate Truman Capote then known as Truman Persons. Truman was raised by his three aunts in Monroeville from the ages of 4 to 9 and subsequently spent summers there. Two of his aunts worked outside of the home and Truman was cared for the majority of the time by his Aunt Sook. She figures prominently in his work, “A Christmas Memory”.
Monroeville was founded on the site of former Creek Indian land gained from the 1815 Treaty of Fort Jackson. The town was known as Centerville until it was renamed after President James Monroe in 1899. The original wooden courthouse was constructed in 1832 and a newer courthouse was erected in 1903. The two adjacent jailhouses, constructed using slave made bricks, were built in 1854 and 1859. Because of Monroeville’s phenomenal cultural heritage it has achieved the honor of “Literary Capital of Alabama”.
Tours of Monroeville begin on the three acre town square in the original Old Monroe County Courthouse that was replicated for the movie version of the novel. The courtroom is located on the second level and provides outstanding photo ops. Also on this level a series of three galleries form the Monroe County Heritage Museum with artifacts, photographs and memorabilia relating to Lee, Capote and the move. Situated in the foyer is a case that features Boo Radley’s tree stump and the small gifts he left for the children. A facsimile lawyer’s office is on the first floor as is a gift shop with unique book related items.
During the summer a theatrical production of the play is presented using both the interior and exterior of the courthouse. Residents of the town, including 12 members of an interdenominational African American choir, have been enacting the roles since 1991. Act one takes place on the lawn of the courthouse and the second act, the courtroom scene, takes place in the actual courtroom with a jury selected from the visiting audience. monroecountymuseum.org
Two monuments on the courthouse lawn are of particular note. In 1997 the Alabama Bar Association recognized the site as a Legal Landmark and erected a monument to Atticus Finch. A bronze sculpture, “A Celebration of Reading” by Branko Medenica, was dedicated in 2014. Three children are depicted reading, one seated on a bench, and visitors can seat themselves and interact with the artwork.
Radley’s Fountain Grille is a must when visiting Monroeville. It is a local favorite and the BLT Supreme is one of Alabama’s “100 foods to eat before you die”. They will not tell you but the potato soup is a Lee favorite. radleysfountaingrill.com
Nelle Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” can be purchased in person or online from Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe in Monroeville. A purchases includes a special stamp and a Certificate of Authenticity attesting to the fact that it was purchased in the city. The shop is cozy and welcoming and has a vast inventory of the works of Alabama writers. ocbookshoppe.com
“I’ll tell you a secret. Old storytellers never die. They disappear into their own story.” –Vera Nazarian
I wish you smooth travels!
To make the most of our literary tour read these along the way:
E. O. Wilson, “On Human Nature”
R. Scot Duncan, “Southern Wonders”
Fannie Flagg, “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe”
Fannie Flagg, “A Redbird Christmas”
Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood”
Truman Capote, “A Christmas Memory”
Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
Harper Lee, “Go Set a Watchman”