Books - A real-life Atticus Finch

Joseph Beck’s memoir retraces shared steps

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In 1938, in the Southeastern town of Enterprise, Alabama, young lawyer Foster Beck was called upon by a judge. The conversation was brief, and by the end of it Foster had a case that would change his life: He was to represent a black man from Detroit, charged with raping a white woman one town over. So begins the story at the center of My Father & Atticus Finch: A Lawyer’s Fight for Justice in 1930s Alabama, Atlanta local Joseph Madison Beck’s enthralling memoir on humanity, justice, and the world we live in.

Joseph begins his memoir by recounting an exchange with the late Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. In a letter, Lee made it clear her work was purely fiction: Foster Beck, Joseph’s father and the central character in the book, was not the inspiration for the Atticus Finch of Lee’s novels. While the author accepts this, fans of Lee’s novels will find a familiarity — however uncomfortable it may be — in the story of Foster Beck.

There is no courageous white savior to be found within the pages of My Father & Atticus Finch. Foster’s initial response to the judge’s call was not acceptance, but hesitation. He makes every effort to get a plea bargain for his client, rather than an acquittal, and years later, his son makes it clear that there is no “good” and no “evil” in the situation. Just people living. It’s very human, and that humanity comes to the surface through the author’s attention to detail and his drive to tell the truth. Not to place his father on a pedestal, not to vilify the society that scorned white Foster for defending a black man who may have been innocent, but to simply tell the truth. Joseph’s memoir wonders how the South could turn out so troubled, and represents it as the tragedy it is.

Reading My Father & Atticus Finch in the present day is a complicated matter, something that should be made clear to any reader picking up the book. The memoir focuses on the Alabama of the 1930s, where lynch mobs were celebrated and an unspoken “‘understanding’ about race among whites” was not to be disturbed, according to Joseph’s conclusions. Yet the work makes painfully clear the flaws in our modern justice system and its inherent racism. Take for example the ability for a lawyer to challenge any juror’s eligibility: Joseph explains in the novel that not only was the ability used to ensure an all-white jury in Foster’s case (while still fulfilling a requirement that black jurors be called for service), but that “as recently as November 2015,” the Supreme Court heard arguments that the system is still being abused for the same purpose. Each time it comes subtly, with small references to modern law — and each time, that’s just enough.

It can be hard to remove the narrative from today’s harsh realities. Joseph pulls no punches as he describes the crowds gathered before the courthouse looking to lynch, or the intimidation his father faced throughout the entire legal process: the social snubs, harassment, and attacks — and how the grudge held against Foster for the case went on to ruin his legal career forever. The scenes are elegantly crafted, but as a result readers should take time with them.

There is little interplay between the past and our present in Joseph’s memoir, but the experiences of the author and the rest of his family are woven into the story of Foster’s tragic fight to prevent the death of his client. It serves the whole of the book well, providing important insights into the culture and the real day-to-day lives of those in the Jim Crow South, and the tapestry it creates is one full of emotion and suspense in equal measure.

That’s perhaps the most striking thing about My Father & Atticus Finch. It’s a story of real people living in a real world. Joseph Beck doesn’t challenge Harper Lee’s statement. He prods at it and reflects, but he does not declare his father a real-life Atticus Finch. Instead, he simply says that “the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird and my father were birds of a feather.” Foster Beck was real, and his struggle and failure to ensure justice are made all the more powerful by that. It gives readers good reason to trace his footsteps, and to appreciate his actions.


My Father & Atticus Finch by Joseph Madison Beck. Norton. $25.95. 240pp.