The 15-minute book club, #2: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.” 

— Atticus Finch

My parents raised us with what I’ve come to describe as a blended education; between September and June we attended public school, but the education continued during the summer with lessons in Latin, grammar, history, art, literature, and Catechism.  Idle minds were not permitted inside our house and the summer housekeeping on our education, though loathed and unappreciated at the time, has continuously served us in good stead in our grown-up lives.

I remember it well:  the summer I turned my oldest sister was given the task of coordinating the literary component of our summer learning.  At the time my brothers were on the threshold of turning nine and ten, and although our interests were starting to diverge like the proverbial path in the woods, the “all for one and one for all” mentality still prevailed.    In retrospect my sister’s wisdom was already well-developed even then, for she chose a novel that managed to capture three young and very different minds from beginning to end.

It was a miracle that a novel narrated in the first person by a six-year-old girl was able to hold the attention of two pre-adolescent boys, but I suppose that’s part of the magic of To Kill a Mockingbird – not to mention the fact that it can exert that same strength on readers who revisit it as adults, and therefore read it under a different light.  It is a harsher light than the yellow halogen of a desk lamp, the bluish circle of a flashlight under a duvet, or the dappled summer sun filtering through a canopy of leaves and branches.  It is the harsh, bright light of experience that comes from within to illuminate the depths of words that we as children see but cannot quite yet fathom.

While I’m sure my brothers found the book’s “bigger picture” to be more interesting than the day-to-day happenings of the Finch family, that first encounter appealed to the tomboy I was back then for I could relate to Scout Finch on many levels.  From trailing along on the shirttails of older brothers who were starting to lose interest in their little sisters to enduring trials at school in both the classroom and the playground, Scout and I had a lot in common and I wished she and Jem could materialize in the real world so that we all could be friends.  Jem could be the male third my brothers were starting to long for when we weren’t with our closest cousins, and Scout could be the female best friend who had always been missing from my early life.

We in the real world even had our own version of the Radley House at the end of our street, complete with its own lore derived mostly from the overactive imaginations of neighborhood children.  My young mind would overlap that house with the one in the book and conjure up new inhabitants, and the adventures we would have there with the Finches always involved Scout and me teaming up against our older brothers and outperforming them in bravery and boldness.

My early years in school were similar to Scout’s, particularly where actual book learning was concerned.  I remember being told by the school librarian that children in grade one could only borrow from the section of the library where there were picture books – a rule reinforced by my teacher and, once it came to the attention of my parents, promptly ignored and undermined by means of my first card for the public library.  A year later, reading about Scout’s interactions with Miss Caroline Fisher on Scout’s very first day of school brought back the memory of being turned away from the school library check-out counter by the steely-haired, flinty-eyed librarian because I wanted to check out two novels “too advanced for my grade’s reading level.”

That summer flew by as I chased daydreams inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird but all too soon it was to become a thing of the summer – as short-lived as the sweet freedom of the season itself, and like the last rays of the sun on the final night before school started not even the light of that beloved book could outshine all that I was to learn in the next year.  When September arrived I found myself in the third grade under the tutelage of a teacher who supported my literary precociousness and encouraged me to read whatever I wanted.  When I told her what I’d read that summer and proved that I could spell, define, and properly use the book’s advanced vocabulary, I also told her that I had spent the previous two years bored to tears during class trips to the school library because I wasn’t allowed to venture to the other side where the novels were kept.   I don’t know what passed between my third-grade teacher and the librarian, but whatever words were exchanged my teacher’s evidently were stronger –  because from then on I was able to borrow whatever my heart desired from whatever shelf I felt drawn to any given day of the week.

To Kill a Mockingbird soon disappeared under piles and piles of other books.  Most were borrowed from the school library, the public library, and my father’s study; some were procured with pocket money from various book sales at the community centre and church; and a few – my treasures at the time – were  bought brand-new with birthday and Christmas money.  But it came back to the top of the pile in grade ten, when the English curriculum called for it as a class novel study.  I went along with the coursework, completing the entire book and assignment package in about a week – a feat that left me more time to delve deeper than my classmates into the story.

This was, perhaps, one of the first times I experienced how a classic book changes with the age of its audience.  The parts I had found highly hilarious as a child were, nearly ten years later, only amusing.  Adolescent retrospect made me see my childhood delights and daydreams as silly flights of fancy and I, like Jem and my brothers, chose to pay more attention now to the bigger things in life than to Scout and the world she inhabited between Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house and the Radley Place.  The novel, which my younger self had seen as amusing and entertaining, revealed to Teenage Me its more somber face.  As I dove deeper into it, trying to find out what Harper Lee was really trying to say, I was swept into the undercurrents of Maycomb’s society until I was washed up on disenchanted shores where I waded through muddy waters where history crashed against fiction.  I realized then that my first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird was only one way by which I might experience the novel, and that as precocious as I might have been at seven I had subconsciously skimmed over the later chapters of the book because my childhood mind could not quite understand why Harper Lee would have spent so much time on “boring, grown-up things” in a book that I thought to be about an idyllic and carefree childhood.

Soon, To Kill a Mockingbird disappeared once more under other books.  I gave it barely a thought during my university years, during which any reading I did was hardly for the mere pleasure of opening a book and forgetting a cup of tea three sips and two chapters later.  When Go Set a Watchman was released earlier this summer, its predecessor came to the forefront of my mind and I found myself more eager to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird than I was to discover Go Set a Watchman.  In my current phase of audiobooks, I was delighted – though hardly surprised – to find several audio versions of that beloved novel and immediately downloaded the edition narrated by Sissy Spacek.

The hormonal sullenness of adolescence now long behind me, I’ve found that I can enjoy the amusing portions of To Kill a Mockingbird with delight similar to that of childhood.  I’ve also realized that the novel has more amusing lines and passages than my younger eyes had ever seen, thus proving that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean you entirely lose either your sense of humor or your ability to find lightheartedness anywhere.  As for the parts where teenaged eyes could only see distress, discouragement, and disenchantment, my adult observations can now see what good can come out of the novel’s darker elements.

Although it reads as a memoir and a coming-of-age-story, Scout tells it all from the point of view of a child.  The words Harper Lee gives her to tell her story are mature and eloquent, but Scout recounts the events of her early life in a tone as straightforward and frankly as only a child’s voice can be.  Scout is suspended in time within the book, forever a child in an idyllic environment only just beginning to crack under the pressures of the larger world beyond picket fences.  Out here in the real world, I have aged; I have grown up in all kinds of ways, losing innocence in the process and therefore sometimes losing hopefulness and faith.  Though Scout grows up too, at the end of the book she is still in that liminal phase where life’s harder lessons are now perceptible but not quite yet tangible, not yet quite learned.

To Kill a Mockingbird keeps Scout in that safe zone within Calpurnia’s earshot, and because of that I can go back to the novel any time I please and be transported to a childhood whose memories and stories are perfectly preserved.  It means that I, now an adult, can still walk up to meet Scout on the porch and re-experience that childhood.  Enough years have gone by between my first meeting with Scout and now for me to be able to do any discussion about To Kill a Mockingbird the justice owed it.  Even though I see things now for what they really are in that seemingly lovely version of Maycomb, I have a child’s hand by which I might be led through those dusty red streets and by whose touch I am reminded to look through even the darkest moments of life with the hope and faith that a light may still be seen somewhere in it.


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