Re-reading “To Kill a Mockingbird”

To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This post originally appeared as a review on my Goodreads account on August 5, 2014.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve re-read this book over the years. What prompted this re-read the other day was taking one of those vapid internet quizzes “Which classic novel are you?” and since my result WASN’T “The body of ‘Moby-Dick‘ and the heart of ‘Bartleby the Scrivener‘” I was a little surprised. As part of an inter-racial family (spoiler alert: I’m basically the Dolphus Raymond sipping Coca-Cola out of a paper bag outside the courthouse) some of the themes of the book strike pretty close to home.

In some ways the book is so simple and straightforward that I wondered how it might age as I read it again in my thirties. As a story about and narrated by children (with fairly simplistic views about race throughout) I wondered how it would hold up. Would it be saccharine or seem dated? I also have sort of a micro-judginess about people who gush about To Kill a Mockingbird as their favorite book, simply because I know they read it sophomore year in high school and I wonder if they’ve read anything else since there. A variation on this is the zillions of little Harpers, Atticuses and Scouts (no Calpurnias, for the record) I’ve met on the playgrounds in recent years and I keep on wondering if these literary names reflect the parents’ sophomoric tastes. In short, I am a judgy, superficial and rather bitchy person who scrutinizes people’s tastes to that degree about a book that I’ve long declared one of my favorites as well.

My moral shortcomings aside, the two things that struck me most on this read were my empathy for Atticus and Lee’s pacing.

I think I’d always read this through the lens of the idealistic/crusader child point of view. Scout is such an appealing narrator that you sort of hope you were her as a kid and then hope she keeps her sassy self going strong into adulthood. Atticus always seemed like The Perfect Father and there are so few of them in literature. I recall the Seattle Public Library posing the question to its Facebook followers which father in literature was the favorite and about eleventy million people wrote in to say “Atticus Finch.” (I stand by my choice of Hugh Chance in The Brothers K.)

But this read, I saw Atticus not so much as a two-dimensional father, but as someone who was really trying to parent. I truly empathized with his motivations to explain morals to his children, his struggles with his relatives, his gentle ways to try to help them truly understand rather than to just tell them what to believe. He’s not the cool parent, and yet he wants his children to know him as an individual. I GOT IT when Atticus snapped at Aunt Alexandra, “I’m doing the best I can with them, sister.” I understood what it’s like to have a kid come home from school and you need to help them negotiate the terrain with their reading ability not what the teacher expected. And when he and Uncle Jack are discussing Scout’s outburst at Christmas (she’d fought her cousin Francis for calling Atticus a “nigger-lover”) the last lines of the chapter absolutely slayed me:

“But I never figured out how Atticus knew I was listening, and it was not until many years later that I realized that he wanted me to hear every word he said.”

Folks, that just about did me in, tears and all. Of course Atticus knows, and he’s trying anything he can to help Scout hear him in a way that is gentle and respectful of her personality and her intellectual autonomy.And Atticus is going to keep trying, no matter how tired he is or how worried or worn down. It’s possible that I could only have come away with that sense of Atticus after becoming a parent myself.

I want to talk about Harper Lee’s pacing for a moment too. Every single chapter ends on a note that is both resolution and absolutely sets the stage for the next chapter, especially the chapters that are establishing character and scene and have relatively little about plot. Some chapters are just vignettes of life in Maycomb or character sketches of the neighbors, but even as they resolve, they heighten the stakes and create wonder and urgency around what is to come. Maybe it’s this attention to craft that allows a simple story to sing out from these pages.

Of course my 7-year-old wants to read the book, but I told her it would be a few more years.

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