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.