Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

For a few days now, I’ve been reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird before going to sleep. I read this book once, a long, long time ago, so although most of the details of the story remain vaguely imprinted somewhere in my mind, the writing is a pure discovery. Scout’s voice is particularly engaging, the voice of a grown-up casting back to a beloved but tumultuous childhood.

Last night I read the scene when Atticus is sitting outside the town jail, reading calmly under a light on an extension cord, but actually waiting for a gang of men to show up and attempt to lynch his client. Of course, Jem, Scout and Dill arrive shortly after. Jem is terrified for his father and spurred by that particular combination of anger and fear starts an altercation with his father. Which only boosts the tension between the men and Atticus, until Scout, still an innocent child, jumps in. She recognizes one of the men as the father of one of her classmates and begins a nervous speech to him about his son. It’s a wonderfully tense moment. Scout starts to believe she’s making a fool of herself, not at all tuned in to what is actually happening. Because her innocence and nervousness manage to erase the dividing line between Atticus and the gang of men just long enough to remind them of their shared community. They slink away. Unknowingly, she’s saved a man’s life. And possibly her father’s too.

Also, I have always loved characters in novels like Boo Radley. Children are so gifted at making their world extraordinary, at creating irresistible monsters from eccentrics or the misunderstood. How many people had a similar character in their childhood? A frightening old neighbor you just had to keep tabs on or a house a few streets away you embroidered with your own extravagant details? My friends, sister and I did this all this time. We were deliciously terrified of a number of enigmatic characters or ramshackle houses. And we created stories to keep us involved and afraid.

What I like the best about Boo Radley is that he fulfills that deep-down secret desire many children have. He is just as interested in you as you are in him. What we would have given to find a mysterious present tucked into the knot of a tree, or under a loose brick. What incredible validation of our outrageous stories. And not to mention the particularly childish optimism which thinks all recluses are secretly shy, wounded people just waiting and watching to help those that deserve it. Scout, of course, deserves it, which is why she is such a delightful character.


10 Responses to “To Kill a Mockingbird”

  1. ds

    To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books of all time; Scout’s defense of her father at the courthouse is one of my favorite scenes. Guess it’s time for another reading [sigh].

  2. adevotedreader

    It is a wonderful crowd-pleasing book, I’m glad you’re enjoying re-reading it.

    I agree with you about children’s capacity to make their world extraordinary, I can no only laugh at some of the tall tales my siblings and I conjured up.

  3. Litlove

    I have to confess I have never read this book, but your wonderful description makes me want to.

  4. びっくり

    That’s it! I am really just a shy and wounded person, waiting and watching to help someone who deserves it. That sounds much better than ‘recluse’. I will keep that sentence at the ready for the next person who wants to label me thus.

    I also have never read Mockingbird, and ditto Litlove’s sentiment.

  5. Dorothy W.

    I suppose I still believe that about recluses … I read this as a very young person (can’t remember exactly when), and I should read it again. It’s so important I don’t like to remember so little about it.

  6. mizwrite

    We just read this for our book club, and you’ve really hit the nail on the head with what we all loved about it, too. The voice was something we discussed at length, because sometimes it seems it’s the little-girl perspective, but other times it’s clearly the adult looking back at the little-girl perspective. (And I can’t believe Harper Lee was able to maintain that throughout the whole book!)

    And we loved the “bigness” of the mystery of Boo, also! But I like your mentioning of the reciprocal nature of that mysteriousness — I hadn’t thought of that, but yes, as kids, we would love to know that our folklore icons find us interesting, too!

    We all just loved the quiet heroism of Atticus, too.

    Nice review!

  7. Jacob Russell

    Just want to leave another note of appreciation for your way of revisiting old classics… and sometimes, what have come to feel like old chestnuts, and reading them with a fresh mind. Reasuraing to be reminded that there are readers like you out there, minds as open as the pages before them.

  8. verbivore

    ds – I hadn’t realized how much I would enjoy this book until I picked it up again, I can see it will be one I will reread again and again.

    Devoted Reader – We were the same, luckily we didn’t go so far as try and see in some of our neighbor’s homes, but we would spy and makeup stories and keep tabs on their comings and goings. Great memories, most of them quite funny now.

    Litlove – It’s a very American book, with wonderful insights into American history and even some contemporary culture. I was shocked to learn the book remains one of the most challenged in US school districts, which is really a shame, it teaches against racism by showcasing how damaging and ignorant that feeling is. I’d love to know what you think if you get a chance to read it.

    Bikkuri – I thought as much about you! 🙂 I think you would enjoy it, on many different levels, and would obviously enjoy hearing your thoughts if you get a chance to read it.

    Dorothy – I agree with you about the book’s importance. It’s a wonderfully prescient story, and although carries a whopping moral it seems to do so with a lot of subtlety. I can tell I’ll be rereading this one again and again.

    Mizwrite – I should have mentioned something about Atticus in my post, because he really is a wonderful character. Just weak enough to be believable but incredible heroic and brave. I read that he is often taken by lawyers as a kind of patron saint – I liked that idea.

    Jacob – Thank you, Jacob, what a nice comment you’ve left. I appreciate it. I consider you the same kind of reader, and with a lot more academic background than myself to bolster up behind your reading process. I’ll just keep working at it, slowly…

  9. chartroose

    TKAM is one of my all time favorites. I loved Boo Radley, too, and after reading your thoughts, I now know why. Kids are invisible, but to Boo they were not. They were important to him. What kid wouldn’t appreciate that?

  10. Nico

    My 80 year old grandmother just had her appendix out and is reading this book in hospital after years for wanting to. A positive consequence from a painful ailment.

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