A runaway seeks Harper Lee for answers
Sometimes the things that need to be discovered aren't so easily found at home. Erin is certain that this is true in her case. A book is all that connects Erin to her mother, who died when she was a baby. But how much can Erin really learn about her mother from a tattered copy of To Kill a Mockingbird? On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, Erin decides it's finally time to find out. And so begins her bus journey from Minnesota to Alabama in search of Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
In a novel full of quirky characters, strange coincidences, and on-the-road adventures, In Search of Mockingbirdby Loretta Ellsworth deftly traces a unique voyage of self-discovery, perfect for fans of To Kill a Mockingbirdand Go Set a Watchman.
“Light, contemporary quest story . . . Suggest this as a follow-up to Lee's classic novel.” —Booklist
“Erin's journey of self-discovery gives her the courage to confront her own failings and the maturity to accept her father's plans to marry. . . . Readers will root for her while reaching for a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Publishers Weekly
"Ellsworth makes Erin's unlikely coming-of-age trip convincing. Designed to look like an old journal, the story's searching-for-mother theme should make it especially appealing to older fans of Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn Dixie (2000) and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice Books. An engaging road trip." -Kirkus Reviews
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About the Author
Loretta Ellsworth is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel The Shrouding Woman. A former schoolteacher and mother of four grown children, Loretta lives in Lakeville, Minnesota.
Loretta Ellsworth grew up in Mason City, IA. A former teacher and a graduate of Hamline University with a Master’s Degree in Writing for Children, she is the award-winning author of several young adult novels. She has four children and six grandchildren and lives in Lakeville, MN. Stars Over Clear Lake is her first novel for adults.
Read an Excerpt
In Search of Mockingbird
By Loretta Ellsworth
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2007 Loretta Ellsworth
All rights reserved.
St. Paul, Minnesota March 13, 1986, 5:30 p.m.
A yellowed paperback
rests in my dusty hands
after I rescued it
from a cardboard box in the attic.
A musty smell lingers in its worn spine.
The dog-eared pages remind me that
a girl, her faded name scribbled
in pencil inside the front cover,
once loved this book, too.
"Erin, get your head out of that book. I have an announcement to make."
Dad's commanding voice is the only thing that could tear me from To Kill a Mockingbird. I mark the page with my finger and look up.
Bruce has his arm around Dad's shoulder, a clone except that Bruce is four inches taller. Dark hair, chiseled jaw, straight white teeth, and a smile that proclaims he's comfortable with his good looks. Bruce is studying broadcasting in college, following in Dad's footsteps.
"Listen up," Bruce says. He even talks like Dad.
"What is it?" I ask.
Dad glances at Jeff, who's standing in front of the open refrigerator, gulping down milk straight from the carton.
"Go ahead. I'm listening," he says between swallows. Jeff is Central High's quarterback and an All State basketball player. He's the only senior at school who's been recruited to play basketball for the Minnesota Gophers next year. Who needs manners when you're Dad's pride and joy?
"I just wanted to tell you that Susan and I are getting married." Dad flashes a shy smile and shrugs as if it's no big deal.
"Way to go." Bruce lands a playful punch on Dad's arm.
"That's great. It's about time," Jeff says as he sticks the open milk carton back in the refrigerator.
They all turn and look at me as if I'm supposed to say something, too.
I stare down at the cover of my book. It's been over a year since I first found Mockingbird in the attic. Since then I've read it cover to cover at least six times, some sections more often. I study the penciled notes in the margins where passages are marked and comments made, each pencil mark as important to me as the words in the book itself. I look up and realize they're still staring at me.
"I have to make a phone call," I say as I push back from the table.
Bruce's voice echoes down the hallway behind me. "Don't worry about her, Dad. She's just acting selfish, as usual."
Dad picks the day before my birthday to announce his engagement, and I'm selfish?
"Yeah, she's a freak," Jeff yells. "Just ask anyone at school."
"That's enough." Dad's stern voice fills the room.
I slam the bedroom door behind me. I wish I had a lock on it. Maybe if I'd inherited some of the athletic talent that Jeff and Bruce did, Dad wouldn't shake his head all the time, as if he can't figure out what to do with me.
"It's a classic case of avoidance," Amy tells me on the phone a few minutes later. "You were just a baby when your mom died, and nobody talks about her, that's why you're upset. But it's so romantic that he's remarrying."
Amy's parents sent her to therapy in sixth grade because she seemed depressed. Her therapist always had a sizzling romance novel on her desk. By the end of the year, Amy had developed an addiction to romance novels and had made a new friend, one who liked to read a lot, too. Me.
"You should write about it in your journal," Amy advises. "Get those suppressed feelings out in the open."
Amy says I will be a famous writer someday. I pick up my purple-covered journal and sigh deeply. One book isn't enough to hold all the feelings I have.
It's always been this way: the three of them watching the Vikings football games, playing basketball, wrestling on the living room floor. I'm the geek who carries a journal around with a pencil stuck behind my ear. I write about everything: the twinkle of lightning bugs against a darkening summer sky, a rose wilting beneath a layer of fresh snow, and of course my favorite author, Harper Lee.
"Jeff says I'm a freak," I whimper, waiting for Amy to come to my defense. She doesn't say anything for several seconds, which seems like forever on the phone. I imagine Amy fluffing her puffy bangs and flipping her dark curly hair held back with a banana clip, trying to come up with a believable lie.
"Jeff would be nicer if you didn't act like a lowly sophomore," she finally says. "We're not in junior high anymore."
"You're just taking his side because you have a crush on him," I say. "Believe me, you don't want to date a guy whose nickname is Maniac."
Amy's voice is firm. "Erin, I'm telling you this because I'm your friend. Maybe you should ditch the book."
I glance at my mother's worn paperback. It's the only history I have of my mom. Her favorite book, the one she kept with her all through high school and college and even after she was married. The book in which she wrote little notes, such as "I love this part," and "Scout's father, Atticus, was more than a man."
Dad has a box of old black-and-white photos in his closet; pictures of their wedding, pictures of Mom with Jeff and Bruce when they were little. Not much else to remind us that she existed.
I shake my head. "I'd rather quit school than get rid of Mockingbird."
Her voice rises. "How can you say that? If you want to be a writer, you have to finish high school. Face it, Erin. Your obsession with that book is kinda weird."
The truth at last. My best friend is a traitor. "At least I don't flirt with seniors." My voice is hard.
That does it. She hangs up on me. Jeff is right. I am a freak.
I bury myself in my bed, underneath a pile of blankets. A moment later a small ball of fur jumps on top of me. I grab my gray kitten, Miss Maudie, and snuggle her close to my face. A patch of white circles her nose and one of her eyes. She mews and claws at me to get away.
"You're betraying me, too? Fine." I wrap the blanket around my head, and seconds later she's back on top of me, pawing at the covers. I lift the blanket and she crawls underneath to lie next to my stomach, curling her gray and white specked tail around her.
I rub her head and softly whisper in her ear.
"Someday I'll do it. I'll get on a bus and go to Monroeville, Alabama, and visit my mom's favorite author. Dad told me he might take me there over Christmas break, but then he said he had to work. Now that he's getting married he'll never have time. So I'll go alone. I'm old enough. I've already planned out the whole trip. Monroeville will be just like I imagine it: white clapboard houses with black shutters and long porches, and magnolia trees in every yard."
Miss Maudie's ear twitches, and she looks up at me. She blinks and looks away, indifferent.
"You don't believe me? I'm not kidding."
I close my eyes and roll back on the bed. I've pictured it in my mind many times. I'll write the whole thirty-plus hours on the bus and fill up my journal. And when I get to Monroeville I'll go see Harper Lee and show her my stories and poems. She'll be there, sitting in her porch swing, waiting to talk to me.CHAPTER 2
I'm almost asleep when I hear a soft knock on my bedroom door.
"Can I come in, Erin?" Dad's voice is hesitant. If he's expecting an apology, he's out of luck.
"I don't care."
Dad opens the door. He's holding something down at his side. His face is red, like it is when he hears Amy and me talking about our periods. He hands me a faded white diary held together with a rubber band, the edges discolored and torn.
"I know I should have given you this before." He places the yellowed book in my hand. "I didn't think you were old enough."
He stops and looks embarrassed again.
"What is it?" I ask.
He clears his throat. "It's your mother's diary. She kept it in the nightstand next to the bed. I thought you'd like to have it."
The silver clasp is broken. The word "diary" is etched on the front. The rubber band is dried out, but its impression still worn into the diary. This has been in his bedroom all these years, right next to his bed? Anger swells inside my throat.
"My mom kept a diary? Why didn't you show me this before?" I run into the bathroom, slamming the door so hard the medicine cabinet shakes.
"I'm sorry, Erin." Dad's voice echoes through the door. My heart flip-flops, but I can't answer him. His footsteps sound heavy as he retreats to the den, where I know he'll turn on the TV and disappear for several hours. We just got cable service, and he's already addicted to the sports channel.
I carefully remove the old rubber band around Mom's diary. The book relaxes. It smells like musty pine. "Kate Kampbell, August 28, 1963 — 16 years old," she'd written on the front page. I recognize the slanted writing from the margins of Mockingbird.
I turn sixteen tomorrow. Is that why Dad gave me her diary now?
The porcelain is cold on my back as I plop down on the green shag rug and lean against the tub, propping my feet up on the cabinet. It's a tight fit in the narrow bathroom, but it's the only room where I can lock the door. I spend hours here, so I can have some privacy.
The diary is filled with entries about school and friends and music. I come across an entry that gives me goose bumps.
I just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird. It's the best book I've ever read! I even wrote to the author. I asked her, "How do you know if you have what it takes to be a writer?"
My mom wrote to Harper Lee? Did she write back? I frantically search the diary for a letter, but find nothing. Does Dad know about this?
This is too much. After all these years of not talking about Mom, now he thinks he can just hand me a scrap of her life and make everything okay?
I thumb through the rest of the diary with fascination. At the back of the diary there are three stories, each three or four pages long. I read each one and then go back to where she says she wrote to Harper Lee. My stomach aches, churning like a giant mixer. Everything is changing. Dad's getting married. Amy will soon have a boyfriend and leave me to wallow alone in tenth grade. Jeff and Bruce are impossible to live with.
"How do you know if you have what it takes to be a writer?"
I run my finger across the words and whisper into the diary, "You never found out." I suddenly know what I have to do. It's like reading my horoscope somewhere and finding a sign.
I retreat to my room and rummage through my underwear drawer. My fingers grasp a wrinkled copy of the Greyhound bus schedule. The bus leaves at seven thirty. Can I make it to the bus station in forty-five minutes? Do I have the guts to do this?
Quickly, I pack a small backpack, gently putting Mom's diary on top. Then I stuff books underneath the covers of my bed and pile teddy bears and quilts across the top. If Dad looks in on me tonight, he won't bother to search under the mess.
I fill Miss Maudie's water bowl to the top and sprinkle extra food in her dish before sneaking out the back door. A carefully placed letter on my desk says it all.
I took the money Grandma sent me for my birthday and bought a round-trip ticket to visit someone very special. Please understand — this is something I have to do. I won't talk to strangers and I'll call as often as I can. Don't worry. I'll be back soon. Take care of Miss Maudie.
Twenty minutes later, I chain my bike to a rusty pipe outside the bus depot. I'm late. The bus leaves in five minutes. I grab my backpack, take a deep breath, and buy a ticket. I walk outside and find my bus. On the side of it there's a drawing of a greyhound in midstride, reminding me that I'm running away. Will Dad come after me? I lied in the letter. He thinks I bought a round-trip ticket, but I only had enough money for one way. And there was another lie. I told him I was coming back.CHAPTER 3
Greyhound Bus Station March 13, 1986, 7:30 p.m.
Dad's like Atticus.
He's the first to volunteer for a good cause.
I remember hanging on Dad's pant leg at a golf
riding in the golf cart,
cheering him on at each hole.
I was only seven years old, and
so proud to have him as my father.
And there's one other way he's like Atticus.
Neither one ever talks about his dead wife.
Since this is my first time on a Greyhound bus I sit alone and try not to choke on the exhaust fumes. A woman across the aisle flashes me a tired smile as she rubs her daughter's back. The girl rests her crimped hair on a makeshift pillow, a large, white teddy bear with black plastic eyes and a red embroidered nose. She looks about ten. She's wearing pink jelly shoes, white lacy socks, and a puffy painted T-shirt with clouds on the back.
The bus pulls out, heading for the interstate. Patches of dirty Minnesota snow splatter up the sides of the bus. The high-pitched whine of the pavement beneath us drowns out the voices of the other passengers.
My worried reflection flickers in the window. I tilt my head to see the tangled mess of hair hastily gathered up into a ponytail. It's the color of dirty sand. If I had my way I'd be a peroxide blonde like Madonna, but Dad won't let me dye my hair.
"It's the same shade as your mother's," he once said, the only time he ever mentioned her.
I try to relax, knowing that they won't find out until morning, when Dad or Jeff will pound on my bedroom door. Jeff will say, "I'm never giving you another ride to school if you don't get your butt out of that bed."
Dad's more subtle. He'll say, "Come on, birthday girl. Wake up. Just because you're sixteen doesn't mean you get to sleep in."
Of course, I'll be hundreds of miles away by then.
The girl across the aisle kicks one foot out. The pink shoe hits the mother's elbow, and the woman lets out a small yelp and massages it.
"Mommy!" The girl whines because her mother has stopped rubbing her back.
I stare at the lacy trim on her ruffled socks. When I was her age I wore Jeff's hand-me-down T-shirts. I should have ended up a real tomboy like Scout. But instead of climbing the tall oak tree in the backyard with my brothers, I curled up underneath it with a pile of books while Jeff and Bruce dropped acorns on my head.
For Christmas, Dad bought me a basketball, an NBA leather one. He just doesn't get it. Even Susan, his soon to be new wife doesn't get it. I guess that makes sense, since she's a volleyball coach. She can talk sports with the best of them. She watches football and reads science fiction.
I open Mom's diary and settle in to spend the next two hours reading. I start over and go through it more carefully this time, cherishing every word as I read about her life in 1963. Partway through a small picture falls out of the middle that I hadn't noticed before. A school picture. "Kate Kampbell — 10th grade" is printed on the back. The name doesn't seem to fit the girl with the black-rimmed glasses, teased hair, and uneven smile.
She's a silent memory in our home, like the first years of our lives never happened. When I was ten, I asked Jeff if he remembered her.
"No, but it doesn't matter, because we have Dad," he answered. "It would have been a lot worse if she died after we'd gotten to know her."
"Why would it be worse?"
"You don't miss what you never had." He nodded his head knowingly with all his twelve-year-old wisdom, then picked up the basketball on his way out the door.
But I didn't agree with him. I always missed her even though I never knew her.
A muffled voice interrupts my thoughts as the bus driver speaks into the loudspeaker. "We'll be stopping in Clear Lake, Iowa, for approximately twenty-five minutes. You may depart the bus, but be back on board no later than ten thirty."
Panic rises inside me and I pull out the schedule.
"It's okay," I whisper to my jumpy stomach, "that stop is listed here." I hug my overstuffed backpack to calm the flutters.
A blouse pokes out through the top, and I wonder if I should have packed more than just two outfits. I also brought a pack of cards, colored pencils, and my science textbook. I intend to keep up with my homework, except for algebra, which is a lost cause, and Spanish, because I can't trill my r's, so I figure what's the use?
I turn off the overhead light and stare out the window into the darkness, watching the headlights of the passing cars. The quiet voices of the other passengers have grown louder since the driver's announcement, and I can see from the tops of their heads that several people are shifting restlessly.
Excerpted from In Search of Mockingbird by Loretta Ellsworth. Copyright © 2007 Loretta Ellsworth. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter One - St. Paul, Minnesota March 13, 1986, 5:30 p.m.,
Chapter Three - Greyhound Bus Station March 13, 1986, 7:30 p.m.,
Chapter Four - South of Clear Lake, Iowa March 13, 1986, 11:00 p.m.,
Chapter Five - Ankeny, Iowa March 14, 1986, 12:30 a.m.,
Chapter Six - Interstate 35 South March 14, 1986, 2:00 a.m.,
Chapter Seven - Cameron, Missouri March 14, 1986, 3:55 a.m.,
Chapter Eight - Kansas City, Missouri March 14, 1986, 5:00 a.m.,
Chapter Nine - Boomer's House March 14, 1986, 6:00 a.m.,
Chapter Ten - The Burbs of Kansas City March 14, 1986, 7:00 a.m.,
Chapter Eleven - Somewhere in Missouri March 14, 1986, 10:45 a.m.,
Chapter Twelve - St. Louis, Missouri March 14, 1986, noon,
Chapter Thirteen - Interstate 55 South March 14, 1986, 3:00 p.m.,
Chapter Fourteen - Cape Girardeau, Missouri March 14, 1986, 4:10 p.m.,
Chapter Fifteen - Near Hayti, Missouri March 14, 1986, 6:05 p.m.,
Chapter Sixteen - Memphis, Tennessee March 14, 1986, 8:00 p.m.,
Chapter Seventeen - Heading South on U.S. 78 March 14, 1986, 9:00 p.m.,
Chapter Eighteen - Near Hamilton, Alabama March 15, 1986, 12:30 a.m.,
Chapter Nineteen - Just Past Birmingham, Alabama March 15, 1986, 2:45 a.m.,
Chapter Twenty - Montgomery, Alabama March 15, 1986, 4:45 a.m.,
Chapter Twenty-one - The Bus Depot in Montgomery, Alabama March 15, 1986, 5:30 a.m.,
Chapter Twenty-two - Parking Lot of Pancake Heaven March 15, 1986, 6:00 a.m.,
Chapter Twenty-three - South on Interstate 65 March 15, 1986, 8:30 a.m.,
Chapter Twenty-four - Harper Lee's House March 15, 1986, 11:30 a.m.,
Chapter Twenty-five - Monroeville, Alabama March 15, 1986, 2:00 p.m.,
Chapter Twenty-seven - March 16, 1986, 10:00 a.m.,
Chapter Twenty-eight - Central High School, St. Paul, Minnesota March 28, 1986, 2:00 p.m.,
About the Author,