With my middle-school experiences in mind (see Part One), I got ready to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and, while I was visiting my parents this summer, started looking around for a copy. I just assumed there would be a copy at hand whenever I felt like picking one up, but this turned out not to be the case.
Me: “Mom, where’s your copy of To Kill a Mockingbird?”
Mom: “I don’t think we have one.”
Me: “ ”
I had purchased my copy of Go Set a Watchman at Target, so I went back there and looked. Unfortunately, they had no copies of Mockingbird. (Perhaps they were sold out and waiting for a fresh truckload. I didn’t ask.) I finally found a newly printed paperback edition at Meijer, bought it, and dove in.
Happily, I discovered that it was just the kind of book to draw you in so nicely and carefully that after a chapter or two, if you managed the self-control necessary to put it down, it soon convinced you to pick it up again and read just one more page, just one more section, just one more chapter to discover what would happen next — even if, thanks to memories of the book and the movie, you in fact already knew what was going to happen next. I kept picking it up until I had to drive back to Wisconsin with the kids, and I think I was in Illinois by the time I realized that I had left Mockingbird in one of my parents’ guest rooms with the first page of Chapter Ten folded over to mark my place. I may or may not have done a facepalm while driving at the moment I realized this.
I need not have worried. A few days later a box showed up on my doorstep with some of the things we had accidentally left behind, and when I opened it, resting on top was Mockingbird. Now I could finish.
Finish I did, within a week. I had just launched myself into a new full-time job, I was driving all over the county to do all kinds of errands, and it was time to start getting all the kids ready for school. But somehow I just kept picking up the book and reading for chapters at a time until I spent all one Saturday morning racing towards the end and finishing it with great satisfaction.
Certainly by that time, and probably while I was still in Ohio, I had come to the uncomfortable realization that I had not, in fact, actually read To Kill a Mockingbird before. What I had read was, I realized, the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of To Kill a Mockingbird. This explained a lot.
It explained why the lovely prose I was reading didn’t seem familiar to my mind or my ear. Yes, I had read the story somewhere around 1979 or 1980, but still. At this time I was also reading George Orwell, John Steinbeck, and some other heavy hitters of American literature. I would have remembered this writing — and I didn’t.
It explained why I had breezed through a novel that the class was taking longer to make their way through. It was longer.
It explained why, over the years, there were references to the book that I didn’t catch. Those details, those immortal lines, just might not have even existed in the version I read.
For a moment I felt guilty, as if I had lied to get out of reading a book. Even though 36 years had passed. Even though the thought was ludicrous of there being a good book out there, somewhere, anywhere, I wouldn’t want to read. But that moment of guilt passed too, and I was in awe at the quality of the book that someone, somehow, had managed to convince all the schools should be required reading.
I did not go to school in pre-Civil Rights-era Alabama like Jem and Scout. But I went to school in a rural agricultural area that was so white we didn’t even think of our district’s one black family as black. Our society was so homogenous as to be almost monolithic: white, Protestant, economically getting by. If any of us thought we were rich, it was only if we compared ourselves to the terribly, desperately poor among us. And I don’t think that any of us thought we were rich.
But it was also a school where I overheard one future jail-cell-dweller tell his friends, “If I have to go out, I’m taking a nigger with me.” It was not exactly the bleeding-heart-liberal audience for Harper Lee’s eloquent book about embedded, enculturated racism, self-serving false accusations, mistaken assumptions, and the short-term consequences of all of the above. And it wasn’t a school wherein one brave iconoclast took a stand against the culture to prove his honor and earn their grudging respect. How it was…was how it was. Minorities suffered. Athletes got away with it. Homosexuals were tortured. Smart kids were ridiculed. People with connections used their connections. Nothing ever seemed to change. (If the school culture changed after I graduated, I wasn’t aware. But I hope that it did.)
To Kill a Mockingbird was a book from which we all should have learned something. I’m not sure that we did. I’m glad that I finally read it in its entirety, and I’m glad that we were supposed to read it as eighth graders, when it should have been able to make a difference in our psyches before we were fully formed adults. Whether or not it did, I think it was good that we read the book.
Next: To Read a Watchman?