Fifty years ago, on July 11, 1960, a book was published that came to have enormous impact on millions of Americans and indeed, on readers worldwide. The book was "To Kill A Mockingbird", by Harper Lee.
I can't remember when I first read the book, although I do know it was not for a school assignment. And I don't know how often I have re-read it. But I do know I have been touting it as "my favorite book ever" for a good 40 years. It has been called "America's novel".
Reading TKAM gave me my first exposure to great Southern literature. My first exposure to the character of a plucky young Southern girl. My first exposure to a "Southern Eccentric" (including the young Dill). And most importantly, a first exposure to the hard cold fact that justice is not aways served.
Bookstores around the country have planned anniversary celebrations this summer, some including showings of the eponymous 1962 film. Harper Collins has put out a 50th anniversary slip-cased edition for a surprisingly low price of $25.00.
Harper has also created a special website for the celebration - http://tokillamockingbird50year.com/ - which includes a chance to win a 50th Anniversary Prize Pack of books and DVD (easy online entry!), suggestions for book club discussions, resources for teachers and a listing of events (although many took place on July 11, there are still a lot scheduled for the remainder of July and August).
(Lee, who is now 84 and famously reclusive, is not involved in any of the anniversary events.)
For anyone re-reading TKAM this summer (or reading it for the first time ever!), here are a couple of books to read along with it:
I have read and thoroughly enjoyed "Mockingbird", Lee's biography, in which I learned (among many other things) these facts: that her full name was Nelle Harper Lee (she was called Nelle by friends and family) and that she was robbed of a well-deserved co-authorship of "In Cold Blood" by her "supposed" longtime friend Truman Capote ("Dill" in TKAM).
Our library doesn't have "Scout, Atticus and Boo" yet but I have put it on reserve. In it, such famous people as Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey share the impressions and effects the novel has had on them. I am sure I will find that they will describe their feelings way more eloquently than I can.
I think my experience of TKAM is summed up by the cover blurb on the edition shown at the top of this post: "The timeless classic of growing up and the human dignity that unites us all."
I read a comment somewhere on the web by a woman who, although she liked TKAM, declared that it was not a perfect book. I disagree. I think it is as close to perfect as a book can be. There is not one sentence, not one word, that does not serve a purpose or help to bring the book forward.
TKAM can be read on so many levels. On one level, it can be seen as a rousing good story, but it is also a classic example of a coming of age book. It slides effortlessly into another time (1930s) and place (the Deep South) as easily as slipping into a river on a sweltering summer's day. It contains some of the most fully-limned characters ever put on page. It is an affecting portrait of an upstanding man, whether he is being the lawyer or the father. It is a blistering commentary on (the lack of) civil rights in America.
I didn't know if I would re-read the book this summer or not. I didn't have to re-read it to perfectly remember the first line: "When he was nearly 13 my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."
I didn't have to re-read it to conjure up the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama, or the characters of Scout and Jem, Atticus and Calpurnia, Miss Maudie Atkinson and Miss Stephanie Crawford, Dill and Boo Radley. They are my neighbors, Maycomb is my town.
I didn't need to re-read TKAM to remember Scout finding little gifts in the knot hole of the tree on the corner, or her hilarious late appearance on a school pageant stage dressed a cured ham, or her taking that sickening tire ride up the sidewalk to Boo Radley's front steps. I vividly remember the night Jem had to leave his pants snagged on a fence, and the children sitting in the colored gallery at the courthouse. I'll never forget the benighted walk from the high school to home on that memorable last night.
I think the main things I came away with after all my readings of TKAM are that class has nothing to do with money, but with "the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down", in other words, acting with grace under pressure. And that the definition of courage is "when you know you're licked before you begin with but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what." And most of all, that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, a creature that does nothing but please us with song, or another creature who only watched over "his children".
In the end, I did re-read it again, yesterday, just so that I could spend some more time in that world where it was "hotter then that it is now", and when people moved slower than they do now. The world of scuppernongs and azaleas, barefoot overalled children and tin bucket lunch pails, of Miss Rachel's "Do-oo Je-sus" and Atticus' dry wit, Calpurnia's colored church and children playing outdoors unsupervised from morning 'til night. I had forgotten a few things, such as how unintentionally funny Scout was, and that even a confirmed tomboy can learn when it's essential to behave: "After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I."
I have often wondered why Lee never published another book (she worked on at least one other for years), but then again, when you write a near-perfect book on your first try, there's no need to write another.