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A few words on “Mockingbird” (Ok, actually closer to 700 words)

June 7, 2010 1 comment

It’s hard to imagine there’s much that can be added to discussion on Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”; it is one of those definitive works of Literature (note that upper case “L,” for the big time books) that most or all of us read at some point in school, and we all carry fond memories of long after we’ve written all those book reports about it.

I read it my freshman year of high school, in between spurts of cop procedurals and private eye novels. It was a book that spoke to me on numerous levels. As a child who’d spent his entire life in Appalachia, staring out at trailer park after trailer park of poverty, I understood these characters struggling against difficult times. As a white kid existing in a mostly white world, where racial epitaphs were as common as questions about the weather, I saw a world where individuals could be seen beyond skin color or their own prejudices and judged by their character. And as the child of alcoholics, I got to meet Atticus Finch, probably the single most noble character to ever exist, the father we all secretly (or not so secretly) wished we had. Between him and Bill Bixby in “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” the concept of fatherhood was totally skewed for me for at least 20 years.

I haven’t read “Mockingbird” in years. I saw the film afterwards, and though I liked it, it lacked the richness that the book possessed. On paper, “Mockingbird” shouldn’t work. In the hands of a less-talented writer, its combination of Southern gothic, Bildungsroman and courtroom drama would have felt scattered and disheveled. Instead, Harper Lee wrote what might be as perfect of a novel as the English language has provided, completely accessible to almost any reader, instantly compelling, a spot-on chronicle of time and place and character. I guarantee it’s the first Pulitzer Prize-winning novel most of us ever read (know anyone who started out with “Advise and Consent” or “Humboldt’s Gift“? I think not.) My daughter, aged 12, recently read it, and she, as all good readers do, loved the book. Of course she loved Boo Radley, which should be more worrisome than it is, I guess, and she was disappointed in the movie.

So if I’ve got nothing to truly say about “Mockingbird,” why I’d just spend more than 350 words rambling about it? Because it seems that while  “Mockingbird” is a novel we celebrate, we don’t truly appreciate. Most of us exist in, what could be termed, a “post-Mockingbird” world. Racial discrimination doesn’t seem as prevalent as it once did (we did elect an African American as president after all), but I suspect really we’ve just brushed it under the rug. We read “Mockingbird” as almost a historical chronicle, akin to Jean Auel’s “Earth’s Children” books, as if racism in the South existed centuries ago, instead of merely decades ago, and only now more well hidden.

We all have these wonderful memories of reading “Mockingbird,” and we all seem to wish Atticus was our father, but what truly touches us in the novel is that understanding that no matter what changes, very little really changes. Sadly, we are still a world filled with fear and distrust, only now we hide it under the banners of “securing our borders” and “homeland security.” We’re not that different from the townspeople who show up at the jail to lynch Tom Robinson; we’re still scared, we’re still afraid, we still want to destroy what is different, what we don’t understand.

Were “Mockingbird” to be written today, it might have been a Grisham-esque thriller, the street-savvy daughter of the virtuous attorney, watching her father defend the life of an illegal immigrant as the nation, and her little part of the world, struggles to rebuild in the wake of an economic recession. It could have been a very different book, but the message would have remained the same: “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Perhaps that is what we should all hope to take with us as we finish the book’s final pages.