Book Review: My Father and Atticus Finch by Joseph Madison Beck


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Title: My Father and Atticus Finch
Author: Joseph Madison Beck
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Hardcover: 240 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

As a child, Joseph Beck heard the stories—when other lawyers came up with excuses, his father courageously defended a black man charged with raping a white woman.

Now a lawyer himself, Beck reconstructs his father’s role in State of Alabama vs. Charles White, Alias, a trial that was much publicized when Harper Lee was twelve years old.

On the day of Foster Beck’s client’s arrest, the leading local newspaper reported, under a page-one headline, that “a wandering negro fortune teller giving the name Charles White” had “volunteered a detailed confession of the attack” of a local white girl. However, Foster Beck concluded that the confession was coerced. The same article claimed that “the negro accomplished his dastardly purpose,” but as in To Kill a Mockingbird, there was evidence at the trial to the contrary. Throughout the proceedings, the defendant had to be escorted from the courthouse to a distant prison “for safekeeping,” and the courthouse itself was surrounded by a detachment of sixteen Alabama highway patrolmen.

The saga captivated the community with its dramatic testimonies and emotional outcome. It would take an immense toll on those involved, including Foster Beck, who worried that his reputation had cast a shadow over his lively, intelligent, and supportive fiancé, Bertha, who had her own social battles to fight.

This riveting memoir, steeped in time and place, seeks to understand how race relations, class, and the memory of southern defeat in the Civil War produced such a haunting distortion of justice, and how it may figure into our literary imagination.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I was incredibly excited when I saw this book, since it combines a couple of my favorite things: To Kill a Mockingbird and non-fiction.  I teach To Kill a Mockingbird every year, and I am constantly looking for companion pieces to go along with it.  I was really hopeful last year when Go Set a Watchman came out that it would finally be the ideal book for this purpose.  While I have a lot of thoughts about Go Set a Watchman (most of which boil down to it would be an excellent book if it did not use the same characters as Mockingbird), suffice it to say it was not quite what I was looking for in terms of a pairing.

This brings me to my thoughts on My Father and Atticus Finch.  I think this book is outstanding in terms of giving an example of a historical case similar to the Tom Robinson trial in To Kill a Mockingbird.  I often have a very hard time trying to get students prepared for the novel, especially teaching in the 21st century in a northern state.  What I most often do is talk about the Scottsboro Boys trial.  This helps to give students some background information; however, there are a lot of things that are not similar (multiple defendants, the Northern lawyer, the fact that it took place earlier and set precedents for the Tom Robinson trial, etc.).  While I do not think that this book would wholesale replace it, I do think that portions of it could be used very effectively for pre-reading and that students who have an interest in the trial and in history would benefit enormously from reading this book.

I also think that the book does a nice job laying out the idea that Atticus Finch is not based on his father even though there are a lot of similarities (and only tries to push the idea he might have been at the end).  It reads as a very interesting and important story in its own right independent of its connection to Harper Lee’s works.  That being said, one of the most interesting things to me in the book outside of the trial was the discussion of the author’s father and his grandfather.  Perhaps because I enjoy overanalyzing things, I found the differences on white-black race relations fascinating and felt like it almost broke down as his father was like Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird and his grandfather had more of an opinion like Atticus in Go Set a Watchman in terms of his paternal approach.  As such, I think that along with being something that adds to the experience of To Kill a Mockingbird this book also made me retroactively enjoy Go Set a Watchman more.

The only criticism I have of the book is that it can at times get a little slow and bogged down in family history (this is entirely fair as the book is ostensibly about his father).  I found myself as I got further into the meat of the book getting a little annoyed with the chapters that dealt with the minutia of the family or the town as opposed to things directly related to culture or the trial itself.  This is a minute complaint however and the book overall was a page turner the whole way through (in large part due to the very narrative approach taken by Beck).

In conclusion, I think this book is a must read for people who love To Kill a Mockingbird or have an interest in history.  I plan on having at least one copy in my classroom library to recommend/lend out to students.

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