Tuesday, July 5, 2011

To Kill A Mockingbird

Do you have a book (or books) that has such a special place in your heart that just the cover makes you feel happy and at peace? One of my all-time favorites, and one I consider a summer read, is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

I first discovered the story in my grandmother's musty, organized cellar when I was about 14 or 15 years old. The cellar, as I recall, would stay delightfully cool on those humid New England summer days. There was a very narrow staircase leading down to the cellar  -- you always had to duck to make sure you didn't hit your head on the stairway ceiling -- and the walls of the staircase itself were made into bookshelves lined with beloved paperbacks that she couldn't fit into the built-in bookshelves in her office. (That same office was always filled with, it seemed, dozens of fascinating projects she was always in the middle of ... but that's a story for another day.) It was in this creaky staircase that I discovered Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals (classic!), Jean Webster's Daddy Long-Legs, and L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (Modern Library Classics). But as much as I loved all of these books, none has had quite the staying power of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I reread this story always in the summer and it seems to age like fine wine. The truths in it become deeper the older I get. But the incredible genius of the book is how the author manages to tap right into what it was like being a child in the summer and how that child looks at the world around her and addresses some heady topics from the point of view of that time. It's so stark and perfect, and I never tire of reading it.

My last day of school this year was a Thursday and I had signed the book out of the library a few days earlier so I could take it to California. Early Friday morning after packing up my classroom for the summer, I left Massachusetts with Ryan for my sister-in-law's elegant wedding in Yosemite. After our plane took off and I had a quick nap, I took out To Kill a Mockingbird-- with what can only be described as summer giddiness -- and began to fall right back into the tale of Scout and her overall-ed world.

Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo .... they were all so real. I don't think there is a greater character in history than the quiet and loving Atticus. Interestingly enough, many of those characters were based on real people and experiences in Harper Lee's life. Here's a little ditty from Wikipedia:

Many details of To Kill a Mockingbird are apparently autobiographical. Like Lee, the tomboy (Scout) is the daughter of a respected small-town Alabama attorney. The plot involves a legal case, the workings of which would have been familiar to Lee, who studied law. Scout's friend Dill was inspired by Lee's childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote,[7] while Lee is the model for a character in Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Harper Lee has downplayed autobiographical parallels. Yet Truman Capote, mentioning the character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, described details he considered biographical: "In my original version of Other Voices, Other Rooms I had that same man living in the house that used to leave things in the trees, and then I took that out. He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true. But you see, I take the same thing and transfer it into some Gothic dream, done in an entirely different way."

The reason I bring all this up, though, is a passage I came across that really hit home with where I am right now. While everyone in my life has been so kind and accommodating with my new eating habits -- I've been truly touched at the effort others have made to make sure there is vegan fare available at gatherings -- I  know the concept of not killing animals or eating their secretions is very odd to most and difficult to understand. Even though I know I'm doing right by the animals, there are times when I tire of being seen as "weird," when in my mind I'm simply being nice.

So here's the little nugget that I just love. Scout is talking to her father, Atticus, about defending an innocent man that most people in the town are condemning as guilty because he is African-American.

"Atticus, you must be wrong..."
"How's that?"
"Well, most folks seem to think they're right and you're wrong ..."
"They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions," said Atticus, "but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

Gotta love her style. I find myself reflecting on this passage a lot lately, particularly when I'm in a challenging situation.

I won't ruin the ending if you've never read it, but the very last scene (and last paragraph!) makes me tear up every. single. time. If you haven't read it, you have a wonderful experience waiting for you!

I'll leave you with two videos. The first is a great scene between Scout and Jem from the movie, an excellent rendition of the book. The second is a lighthearted playful video by Sassy Gay Friend that will make sense when you get to the end! (Though it may not make sense if you've never read The Giving Tree or To Kill A Mockingbird...) If you haven't seen any of the other Sassy Gay Friend videos, check them out on YouTube. They're a riot!


  1. I liked the way that you described the place where you used to read To Kill a Mockingbird as a teen.

    "I first discovered the story in my grandmother's musty, organized cellar when I was about 14 or 15 years old. The cellar, as I recall, would stay delightfully cool on those humid New England summer days..."

    It really set the scene and took me to that place. I can imagine you being a young adult in the summer, settling in with a good book in the quiet and away from summer's heat.

    I had a few favorite books that I'd read every summer, and two of them were given to me by my mom. They were favorites of hers as a young teen too. After reading your post, I went to my bookshelf to look at the books and had to laugh when I saw the pictures. The covers of the books, showing women in fifties dresses, looks like the kinds of dresses I gravitate towards today. These books really do infiltrate our psyches! ;)

    On a more important note, what Scout had to say, is an important reminder to all of us about being true to our own conscience.

  2. Fifties dresses are fun, aren't they? Thanks for your fun comment -- and a shout out to your amazing blog. I really enjoy your writing!