Last week, Harper Lee died. The news of her passing made me think and remember.
It was in Year 10 that I was first introduced to her work – To Kill A Mockingbird. It was one of the year level texts at my school. I remember reading it, the summer before school started for the year, as I usually did with class texts.
I’m a fast reader, so it didn’t take me too long to read. Maybe a day? (It helped of course that it was summer, so I simply planted myself on my bed, with the fan in the bedroom and read the day away.)
I even know, thanks to my diary, what day it was (Thursday 23rd Dec) and how I felt after reading it. Here’s what I wrote about it:
I just finished reading ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. I can’t really describe what it’s about – there are lots of meanings and I wouldn’t be able to explain them properly here.
All I can say is it really is a classic.
A quote: ‘Shoot all the bluejays you want, but it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’
I cried at the end of the book, it was so touching.
As you can see, I was still processing the book’s contents when I wrote that, unable to properly articulate my feelings about it. All I knew was that it had touched me, deeply, in that indescribable way that books can. I knew that it was a book that would stay with me.
To Kill A Mockingbird‘s message did stay with me. It stuck, well and truly, like that other quote from it: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” and “Before before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” and a hundred other gems, little darts of wisdom going straight for the heart.
The characters, too….I remember how we discussed, in class, the roles of Atticus and Calpurnia (a surrogate mother for Jem and Scout, despite or perhaps because of her role as a maid) and other characters. We also discussed Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, racism and ignorance.
It occurred to me when I was writing this that, though my diary entries don’t show it, I have a clear memory of comparing the mockingbirds of the story with present-day mockingbirds. They are asylum seekers and Indigenous Australians and African-Americans and Muslims and other groups historically and currently disadvantaged because others fear and hate them. When I read the book in Year 10, I was beginning to think critically and politically about issues. Perhaps that’s why the book’s truths about injustice and people and power stuck with me and continue to do so. The problems outlined in the book haven’t gone away and the truths haven’t turned false.
Of course, we now have Go Set A Watchman adding meaning and detail. I confess, I haven’t read it yet (though I’ve heard about its contents) – a combination of wanting to wait out the hype, uneasiness over its discovery and just plain forgetting to borrow it out. I’ll have to get on to that, I suppose.
Have a read of this bookriot article here. It puts an American spin on things. The author of that piece, Ms. Schingler makes a good point. It’s up to us to be the change. She says,
“Set the idea of Atticus aside. We are our own watchpeople. We should be, should always be trying, to work to protect and defend Tom Robinson, in all his modern incarnations, ourselves.”
Like Ms Schingler, I, too, say: Goodbye, Boo (Harper Lee) – and thank you.