Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s my all-time favorite book and movie. I’m currently reading Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird by Mary McDonagh Murphy. Since Murphy didn’t come around and interview me about my memories and impressions of this book, I will just pretend here that she did.
The summer I was eight, we were living in a suburb of San Diego called El Cajon, which is Spanish for The Box. This suburb is stuck in a valley, boxed in all around by hills which hold in the heat. I spent that summer in a bathing suit at the swimming pool, getting green hair and lots of ear infections. When I wasn’t in the pool, I was at my friend Kelly’s apartment watching TV with her family or in her bedroom listening to Partridge Family records. One day we came inside wrapped in damp towels, and on the TV was this black & white movie. Three kids our age were sneaking through a vegetable garden, daring each other to reach the back door. Then they were running away, until one of the boys got his overalls stuck on the fence wire and had to leave them behind. Well, obviously I had stumbled onto the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I sat there mesmerized through the rest of the movie. I’ve seen the movie many times since, and I own the deluxe DVD. Back in 1995, I felt such a sense of loss when I heard the news that John Megna, the young actor who played Dill, had died of AIDS.
A couple of years after I saw the film for the first time, I found a battered copy of the book in the bargain bin of a used bookstore. The cover had already fallen off and the book was ripped into two pieces. About eight pages were torn in half, so you had to hold them together to read them. At least it couldn’t get any worse! (Actually, it could. I once read a bargain book that smelled like cat pee. My family kept kicking me out of the living room because of the smell. It was a really good book, though!) I kept that battered Mockingbird for years and years, until I finally replaced it with a fresh copy. That one was lost in my last move. It’s time for copy number three!
The thing that makes To Kill a Mockingbird great is that it keeps getting better each time I read it. I try to read it at least every ten years, because as I move through my life, I find I relate to different characters. The first time I read it, I was totally on young Scout’s wavelength. I cried hot tears of rage at the injustice of Scout being punished for defending Atticus. As I got older, I related more to her brother Jem. The last time I read it, I loved Calpurnia. I can’t wait to read it again and see whose eyes I see the story through next. I doubt it will ever be Atticus, though. I’ll never be that perfect.
The only time I didn’t enjoy reading Mockingbird was when we studied it in high school. I had already read it at least three times by then, but my uninspired English teacher killed all the joy the book held for me. There’s nothing like the phrase “find the symbolism” to ruin a good book!
Here’s my favorite passage from the book:
“We came to the street light on the corner, and I wondered how many times Dill had stood there hugging the fat pole, watching, waiting, hoping. I wondered how many times Jem and I had made this journey, but I entered the Radley front gate for the second time in my life. Boo and I walked up the steps to the porch. His fingers found the front doorknob. He gently released my hand, opened the door, went inside, and shut the door behind him. I never saw him again.
Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.
I turned to go home. Street lights winked down the street all the way to town. I had never seen our neighborhood from this angle…. Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”
Like everybody else who adores Mockingbird, I wish Harper Lee had written more books for me to read and love. I doubt I could love another book more than I do this one, though.
Thank you, Miss Lee.
Update: The book by Murphy is a companion to a documentary, which is tentatively titled “Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird.” It is listed as “in post-production” at imdb.com.
We did Mockingbird for my book club, and when I read it again, I related to Miss Maudie for the first time.