Saturday, February 20, 2016


"Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

Few books have captured the imagination or landed on as many "all-time favorite" lists as Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird.  As she quietly passed away in her sleep on Friday at the ripe old age of eighty-nine, it would not surprise me if somewhere, in some high school English classroom, her classic was being read, analyzed, and discussed.  Mockingbird held a permanent place on most required reading lists.  And, I suspect that the 1962 film version of the same name, starring Gregory Peck as the nobly erudite Atticus Finch, helped along some reluctant readers on papers, tests, and quizzes regarding Harper Lee's best seller.  Much like Colin Firth will always be Mr. Darcy, Gregory Peck will always be Atticus.  Period.  

I'm quite sure that I first read Mockingbird in Mr. Briggs' 10th grade English class--also the place where Jay Gatsby caught my attention.  I recall enjoying it.  But, as youth is often wasted on the young, I didn't come to appreciate the wordsmithing, the complexity of character and story, and the deep South dynamics until later in life.  Then, I binged.  This binge played out like the literary version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.  

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I'd have the facts.” 

It started with a re-read of To Kill A Mockingbird.  Then, I had to know more about this reclusive author, Ms. Nelle Harper Lee; thus, I located her aptly-titled biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, in our local library.  As I read her biography, I learned that she started her book career as Truman Capote's research assistant on his true crime novel, In Cold Blood.  "Research assistant" is an understatement as many would later argue that her affable nature and painstakingly detailed notes were the reason that In Cold Blood ever made to publication in the first place.  Naturally, Capote didn't see it that way, and after giving her a terse acknowledgement for her help in the book's prologue, their friendship began to deteriorate.  After the grand success of To Kill A Mockingbird, it was dead and buried.  His loss.  Naturally, I read In Cold Blood--in broad daylight.  When everybody was home. Terrifying.  Like a good binging bibliophile, I picked up a Capote bio and read a few of his short stories--the best known, Breakfast at Tiffany's, became a screen classic.  Hollywood lightened it up.  And we fell in love with Audrey Hepburn.  But, that's another post entirely.

Ultimately, I came back round to where I started--with Scout, Jem, Boo, and Atticus.  And this was where I stayed.  On the front porch, sipping sweet tea, trying to figure out why Aunt Louise was always trying to get Scout to wear a dress.  Or why a "grown man" would take out his drunken frustrations on two innocent kids, to avenge his daughter's alleged assault and their father's defense of the truth.  Or how some simple acts of childish kindness, mixed in with some "I dare ya to touch the Radley's porch" schemes, moved a simple man to protect those kids--and fight for their lives.  All packed into a so-called children's book.  

“Atticus said to Jem one day, "I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. "Your father’s right," she said. "Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” 

Thank you, Ms. Nelle Harper Lee, your "little book" made a big difference.  

Disclaimer:  Yes, I have read Go Set A Watchman and realize the portrayal of Atticus in his later years is somewhat shocking, to say the least.  But a wise friend instructed me to read Watchman as a completely separate book from Mockingbird.  Not as a sequel, prequel, or any other type of "-quel".  Thus, my reading and admiration for Atticus as I first knew him remains intact.  Thank you, Amy.  

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