Wednesday, July 7, 2010

On "To Kill a Mockingbird"

It's the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird this year, and there are lots of commemorative editions, a documentary, Facebook groups, and more articles than I could possibly link to here.

I first read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 7th grade as an added assignment from my English teacher because I'd already finished the book the rest of the class was reading. I believe I read it again in high school, also as an assignment, and then a third time after college. It's time to read it again. This time I hope to savor it as much as possible.

I think I've seen the movie as many times as I have read the book, if not more. It's a beautiful translation of the book, but the last time I read the novel, I realized how many pieces were missing that I hadn't even remembered because the movie image was so strong.

I'm trying to think what it is about To Kill a Mockingbird that makes it last so well. Although it is an "issue" novel, it doesn't read as two-dimensional propaganda. The characters are too well-drawn for that. There's a specificity in the action and focus on small things so that it's not all issue all the time. It's also very funny in parts; it doesn't seem to take itself overly seriously.

But there more to it than that. Here's a random paragraph:

If Calpurnia had ever bathed me roughly before, it was nothing compared to her supervision of that Saturday night's routine. She made me soap all over twice, drew fresh water in the tub for each rinse; she stuck my head in the basin and washed it with Octagon soap and castile. She had trusted Jem for years, but that night she invaded his privacy and provoked an outburst: "Can't anybody take a bath in this house without the whole family lookin'?"

This is before Calpurnia takes Jem and Scout to church with her. There's nothing noble about this; looking back a page, one reason Cal takes them to church is because the last time the two had been to church on their own, "Left to its own devices, the class tied Eunice Ann Simpson to a chair and placed her in the furnace room." These are good kids, but not paragons. I think that helps.

And again, the lovely attention to detail. Not just "Calpurnia made me take a bath," but a full description of the ritual, the kind of soap, and the domestic details of the invasion of privacy.

But it's just plain gorgeous writing. I think that's one thing about this book: you can cut into this book at any point and find something beautiful.

But what do I know? There's a way that I think it's just magic: either a mystery or a miracle. Who am I to question or analyze? I think I'll just take it as the gift it is and give thanks.

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