I first read To Kill a Mockingbird at fourteen, in school. It was one of those hardbacks made for classrooms, and I think it might have been orange. We would each read a few paragraphs aloud, and I would read on while waiting my turn. Whether my classmates loved Mockingbird as much as I did, I have no idea.
This was in 1986, and Mockingbird had been in print for twenty-five years. Set in the American South of the 1930s, it seemed even older – but some stories are universal. Our school was Catholic with a capital ‘C’, and yet Harper Lee‘s exploration of bigotry and misfit characters was, surprisingly, deemed acceptable.
After all, To Kill a Mockingbird had outsold the Bible. For a long time I knew little about its author, except that she was still alive, and had never published another book. Although its progressive themes may have resonated with the times, what I liked most about the novel were the lighter moments, and how it gave children a voice.
My favourite part is in Chapter 14, when Scout and Jem’s friend, the eccentric Dill, returns to them by stealth.
Jem made a tentative swipe under the bed. I looked over the foot to see if a snake would come out. None did. Jem made a deeper swipe.
‘Do snakes grunt?’
‘It ain’t a snake,’ Jem said. ‘It’s somebody.’
Suddenly a filthy brown package shot from under the bed. Jem raised the broom and missed Dill’s head by an inch when it appeared.
‘God Almighty.’ Jem’s voice was reverent.
We watched Dill emerge by degrees. He was a tight fit. He stood up and eased his shoulders, turned his feet in their ankle sockets, rubbed the back of his neck. His circulation restored, he said, ‘Hey.’
Jem petitioned God again. I was speechless.
‘I’m ‘bout to perish,’ said Dill. ‘Got anything to eat?’
A few years later I bought my own copy, with a Depression-era cover photo of a young girl sitting on a porch, taken by Eudora Welty. I’ve seen the film, of course, but while the child actors were a delight, in general I found it too earnest.
I read Mockingbird again a few years ago, and it was as warm and witty as I remembered. Harper Lee’s rejection of the spotlight made her something of a real-life Boo Radley. Although unfairly branded a recluse, she lived out her days peaceably in the same town where she was born.
Go Set a Watchman, published last year, was really a first draft of Mockingbird, and perhaps one day the readers who cried out their disapproval will come to appreciate it as such. In a new century, wary of white saviours, the mockingbird still sings.