Friday, July 08, 2011

Reading (or re-reading?) To Kill a Mockingbird

Several months ago I was asked to be part of a panel discussing To Kill a Mockingbird in August. Smart program planners always ask months in advance, because it's so easy to say yes to something six months away whereas if it were next week, it would be easier to say, "No, can't do that." In the interest of getting my name out as an author, I agreed, all the while thinking "Darn, I'll have to re-read it. It's been way too long." For the past week I've been re-reading that classic book and been totally immersed in it, finding it hard to tear myself away to do the things I really need to be doing.
The panel moderator sent out a list of questions to spark the discussion, and one was when did you first encounter TKAM? In reading, I decided I may never have read the book, though that seems impossible--surely I read it in college or graduate English classes. But I can see the movie clearly in my mind--especially the scene where Atticus shoots the rabid dog--and I'm beginning to wonder if that's the only way I know it. I think this book is so deeply engrained in many of us that we honestly can't remember our first encounter.
Everyone wonders why Harper Lee never wrote another book. I can't speak for her, but I know this book needs no sequel. It ends where it should end, comes full circle, and any attempt to carry it beyond that point would fall flat. Perhaps Lee, with her deep roots in and knowledge of southern culture could have written another totally different book, but she chose not to.
TKAM offers an in-depth writing lesson for authors who want to take time to explore it's structure. The voice of Scout is dead on as narrator--the story could not have been told from any other point of view. Scout combines an unusually acute perception of the world around her--for an eight-year-old--with the naivete of her age, which sometimes leads to the novel's most ironic moments. The society in which the action takes place is fully developed, without didactic description, through Scout's view of things--we see the truth about the black community and the way they're treated, about the poor whites, about the townspeople set in their ways and counting their ancestors.
Atticus troubles me only because he's so wise, so calm, so perfect--but he too has his weak moment, his fall from grace if you will, at the end of the book when he realizes humanity triumphs over law. (No spoilers here). The other characters live in our minds because Scout makes us see them as individuals, often eccentric.
This is not a novel about justice--rather it's a novel about the injustice inherent in our legal system. The tragedy is peculiar to the South in the 1930s and yet it is with us today--dare I cite the Casey Anthony case? While that case is tawdry at this point, TKAM is rich with humanity--its great moments, its small moments, and, yes, a good dose or humor--not slapstick, always the ironic comment or turn of events.
Harper Lee's novel will make you laugh, wring your hands, and despair for humanity, but it will in the end enrich you. I've always thought a novel could be called significant if when you finished it you were in a slightly different place emotionally or intellectually than when you began it. TKAM fits that criteria. And if you're a writer, this novel will teach you about subtlety and economy of words and the soft but sure approach to telling a story.
Maybe Harper Lee knows best. She might feel, to this day, that she could never equal this accomplishment. I for one bow to her judgment and wishes. Did you know she has decreed that no edition of the book will ever have an introduction? Good--scholars won't be picking it apart and dissecting it as scientists do a moth or butterfly.

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