Sunday, July 19, 2015
When I was very, very small this book lived in the top of my mother's closet. Lying on her bed, I could see it up there. I remember my mother telling me the title which intrigued me even before I was old enough to read.
Years later and in a different house, I pulled this book out of a collection on a shelf of my mother's books one summer when I was looking for something to read. I was surprised and excited to find that the main character was a kid. It hadn't occurred to me that a book for grown-ups would have a child main character.
This book, to me, a thirteen year old white girl living in New Mexico, was a sort of primer on the American South. All the concern about social class and identity was as foreign to me as screen porches, swept yards, and collards. I remember being captivated by the trial section of the book. The injustice was terrible to me, although not unexpected. I remember when I read the line "Hey, Boo!" I cried so much the words on the page blurred.
Many years passed and I found myself living in the South. I was delighted by real screen porches, "haints" and "hot steams." Just like in To Kill a Mockingbird, women were known by "Miss" and their first names. This puzzled me, but seemed harmless. Less harmless were racially prejudiced and assumptive comments given as asides in many conversations with older white people. I was uncomfortable at parties where the black housekeeper served food, cleaned up, and took care of children while the hosts lounged in chairs discussing golf. I didn't understand people's pride in the civil war, a war the South lost and fought to keep others enslaved.
And then, I came to teach in schools where the majority of students were black. Most of my students were not born in the South. Most of them had been shuffled through as many schools as their age. Many were living with a single parent, grandparent, aunt, or affiliate who was hoping to give them a better life in a suburb where inexpensive housing and trailer homes were nestled in amongst modest subdivisions and farmlands. The kids wore their idea of "the hood" like armor. Residents of the modest subdivisions and many teachers I worked with saw the neighborhood "turning" and jumped to "get out of the hell hole" (an exact quote).
The book I had to teach to ninth graders was To Kill a Mockingbird. Repeatedly in the beginning of the book kids would ask me, "Wait, is this girl white or black?" Or, "So, is Dill black?" And they would slumber through the book until the trial part, which they found somewhat engaging--but which I found to be almost intolerable as I realized that this was a sort of self-congratulatory story about a white man who stands to assuage white people's guilt. The students were less uncomfortable--truly because some were really only pretend reading--but more importantly because for them, that's the way with stories, with books. The black man loses, the white man wins, and da, da, da. School, books. Yeah, yeah. Boring.
I only taught this book once. Eventually most teachers at my school (the ones who stayed) decided to teach something else. I don't think of this as a loss. After all, I found To Kill a Mockingbird on my own. I never read it in school. I still think that is the way people find the best books anyway. The book is still out there; people still read it. And it is still special to me in its own way. But it isn't holy. It's a story.
Now, some people are up in arms about Go Set a Watchman, a draft of a story that maybe was never meant to be published. I am not up in arms. In fact, I'm not really interested in reading Go Set a Watchman. I understand very well how a writer sets what she knows or thinks to be true on a paper, and how the story takes over and shifts and changes and tells the writer a truth she might not have wanted to know. I know very well how you have to dump everything out of a story, like dumping out a drawer, and resort and make something new. I have little interest in analyzing Lee's work in this way. I've had enough of Harper Lee's South. There are many, many other books I want to read--many, many other places I want books to take me to.
The clamor over this new book tells me though, that stories move people. A story can shake someone to the core. A story! And to me--that is really, really cool.