Wednesday, May 26, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

Two weeks ago, my internet connection was down, my back was injured, and my barely satiable desire to read remained intact. Therefore, I read, for the first time, the fully enjoyable "To Kill a Mockingbird". Yesterday, I read that this year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, and that various celebrations of the book will occur throughout the summer. What a happy coincidence that I finally read the book!

An interesting thing about the book: author Harper Lee (photos) identifies, in her own life, with the reclusive Boo Radley of the story. Further, Harper Lee has said she considers the book "a simple love story". She's speaking of Boo Radley's love for the Finch children. In the very last chapter, in the words of Scout, Lee hints at what it is like to watch the world pass by, and to love from behind a barrier. Scout walks Boo Radley home. Boo goes inside, and Scout is left standing on Boo's front porch and looking at Boo's world:

Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.

I turned to go home. Street lights winked down the street all the way to town. I had never seen our neighborhood from this angle. There were Miss Maudie's, Miss Stephanie's- there was our house, I could see the porch swing- Miss Rachel's house was beyond us, plainly visible. I could even see Mrs. Dubose's.

I looked behind me. To the left of the brown door was a long shuttered window. I walked to it, stood in front of it, and turned around. In daylight, I thought, you could see to the postoffice corner.

Daylight... in my mind, the night faded. It was daytime and the neighborhood was busy. Miss Stephanie Crawford crossed the street to tell the latest to Miss Rachel. Miss Maudie bent over her azaleas. It was summertime, and two children scampered down the sidewalk toward a man approaching in the distance. The man waved, and the children raced each other to him.

It was still summertime, and the children came closer. A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishingpole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention.

It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose's. The boy helped his sister to her feet, and they made their way home. Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day's woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive.

Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog.

Summer, and he watched his children's heart break. Autumn again, and Boo's children needed him.

Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.
As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown
but there wasn't much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.

The title of the book even refers to Arthur "Boo" Radley and his "shy ways". Note: early in the book, it is discussed that one ought never shoot a mockingbird, for a mockingbird only sings and makes music, and never does harm to crops or to anyone. Later, in the next to last chapter:

Mr. Tate stopped pacing. He stopped in front of Atticus, and his back was to us. "I'm not a very good man, sir, but I am sheriff of Maycomb County. Lived in this town all my life an' I'm goin' on forty-three years old. Know everything that's happened here since before I was born. There's a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it's dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead."

Mr. Tate went to the swing and picked up his hat. It was lying beside Atticus. Mr. Tate pushed back his hair and put his hat on.

"I never heard tell that it's against the law for a citizen to do his utmost to prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did, but maybe you'll say it's my duty to tell the town all about it and not hush it up. Know what'd happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin' my wife'd be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes. To my way of thinkin', Mr. Finch, taking the one man who's done you and this town a great service an' draggin' him with his shy ways into the limelight- to me, that's a sin. It's a sin and I'm not about to have it on my head. If it was any other man, it'd be different. But not this man, Mr. Finch."

Mr. Tate was trying to dig a hole in the floor with the toe of his boot. He pulled his nose, then he massaged his left arm. "I may not be much, Mr. Finch, but I'm still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night, sir."

Mr. Tate stamped off the porch and strode across the front yard. His car door slammed and he drove away. Atticus sat looking at the floor for a long time. Finally he raised his head. "Scout," he said, "Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?"

Atticus looked like he needed cheering up. I ran to him and hugged him and kissed him with all my might. "Yes sir, I understand," I reassured him. "Mr. Tate was right."

Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. "What do you mean?"

"Well, it'd be sort of like shootin' a mockingbird, wouldn't it?"

Atticus put his face in my hair and rubbed it. When he got up and walked across the porch into the shadows, his youthful step had returned. Before he went inside the house, he stopped in front of Boo Radley. "Thank you for my children, Arthur," he said.

The simple final lines of the book comprise one of my favorite endings to any book. "He" is Atticus:

He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be
there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the

Verklempt, baby.

In "Infamous", Sandra Bullock shines in a supporting role as Harper Lee accompanying her childhood friend, Truman Capote, to Kansas to research the murders which Capote wrote about in "In Cold Blood". Lee had based her Mockingbird character, Dill, on Capote as a child.

Turn your volume way up:



Donna B. said...

One of my favorite books. Though I've read it twice over the years, maybe I'll read it again this year.

Another book I like is John Grisham's "A Time to Kill". It was his first novel and he says he was influenced Harper Lee's book. It's not as good as "To Kill a Mockingbird"... not nearly enough nuance :-)

And if you haven't read "Chiefs" by Stuart Woods... do it. Though the reader knows whodunit from the beginning, it's full of suspense.

Unfortunately for both Woods and Grisham, these first novels still (IMHO) remain their best.

gcotharn said...


THANKS for commenting, and for the book recommendations. My next step in the great project to read books which I am embarrassed to never have read: Moby Dick, aka the great American novel, although a case could also be made for Huckleberry Finn.

I've seen "A Time to Kill" in theater, but will, on your recommendation, definitely read the book. And Chiefs, also.