I may be a little late on this, but I don’t think anytime is a bad time to celebrate my personal favorite book of all time. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
I read this book every summer from the summer I was eight years old, admittedly an early age for the material, but I was more caught up with the stories of Scout, Jem, Dill and Boo than I was with the courtroom. I read it every summer until I was twenty-four. I know, because I remember where I was that summer, reading it, the smells around me mingling with the smells in the book. I can smell that stifling chicken wire ham costume right now. and the Wrigley’s Double Mint gum in the tree, and Calpurnia’s breakfast. I have read it periodically since, and always in the summer. When I was a kid reading it, I saw Atticus as a distant yet caring father with a lot on his mind. The main thing I got from the book, was what Atticus taught them not just by his words but by his actions.
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know 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.
You do what is right, because it is the right thing to do.
You treat people with respect, no matter who they are, because respect is what you’ll get if you do. And mostly, because it is the right thing to do.
Just because you can shoot a gun better than anyone else in the county, doesn’t mean you go around showing off about it.
And you help those who can’t help themselves, because it is the right thing to do.
There’s plenty more. The book is full of wisdom, beauty, life in a microcosm shedding light on humanity as a whole. An excellent story on every level and there are many, and the writing is so good, straight and simple, I can cry from the opening line.
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
I know it, because I’ve read it so many times, but the whole of that tale is held in that sentence. You feel it when you read it even for the first time. You know immediately, something is up, and it’s big. You just may not know how big it is til you get to it, but it is big.
I think I got my lifetime sense of needing to right the wrongs in this world from reading this book so many times and from such a young age. I may not have really known what the courtroom stuff was about specifically, but I knew it was wrong to lie and accuse an innocent person of something that was clearly bad. I knew it was wrong for that mob of neighbors to come to Tom Robinson’s jail cell in the cover of night.
What I love more than anything about this book is Scout’s growth. Narrator Scout tells of her own growth through her childhood fallibility. She shows how hard it is and how simple it is to see wrong and make it right. How hard it is to be wrong and have to admit it. And how much easier the world comes to you once you accept how you’re wrong, and do what you can to change it.
I could go on. I can talk about the kid’s adventures, Boo’s real gentleness. I can talk about ‘a sin to kill a mockingbird’, the rabid dog, the relatives, the house burning down, the sitting with the sick old Mrs. Dubose for penance. I can talk about pies, pants caught on garden fence, and the collection tin at Calpurnia’s church. I can talk about Atticus’s perceptive defense of Tom, the nervous trapped cat sense of Mayella, the snobby relatives, Walter Cunningham, fights, squabbles, making up, and the big brother saving the life of his sister with the help of a ghost of a man everyone fears. I can talk about kids and trains, and a sense of belonging we all long for and think we can find in a simpler time that was never so simple after all.
But mostly I can go read again (and suggest you may want to, too) the most simple, complex, learning tale of a girl, her father, a small town, and the need for justice. Simple elegant justice, and how even when it seems so simple, so elegantly right, it can still go wrong, because we all, after all, are human, and still learning.