Reading Sanjay Sipahimalani’s Yahoo! column about rereading, I thought about my second encounter with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I was under the impression that I remembered the book quite well from my first reading of it at age 13 or 14, but I was wrong. Adolescent memory had turned it into a sweet, simply written, somewhat romanticised slice-of-life about two children growing up in a small town in the 1930s and very briefly having to deal with the harshness of the world when their lawyer father defends a black man accused of rape. I remember thinking at the time that Atticus Finch was a somewhat boring, preachy character, with his repeated patter about the need to understand another person – by “getting into their shoes and walking around in them for a while” – rather than judge them. (Note: I didn’t disagree with this idea, I just thought it was much too obvious.)
What a difference a second visit to the town of Maycomb made. For starters, I realised that my first reading couldn’t have been all that careful. The opening page of the book touches on aspects of American history (North-and-South politics, the history of the Methodists and the liberals) that I wasn’t much interested in as a youngster, and such allusions run through the story. I had probably skimmed over all those bits and focused mainly on the adventures of little Scout Finch (the narrator), her brother Jem and their friend Dill. Also, while it’s true that the book reads like an intimate dedication in places (as if it were written by someone who didn’t so much want to launch a career as a professional author as share the experiences that shaped her perspective on life), Lee’s writing has more precision than I remembered. From Scout’s voice, you can tell that she is the precocious daughter of a man who has educated himself by reading variedly and wisely (one of Atticus’s neighbours snarkily says that all he does with his time is read).
But most of all, I see now that Atticus isn’t a sanctimonious old bore. His wisdom is hard-won - it’s implied that he has seen sad days himself, faced moral dilemmas and come out of them with his integrity intact - and he doesn’t force it down his children’s throats. Though he does make mini-speeches once in a while, he lets Scout and Jem figure out most of life’s sterner truths for themselves. He also has a sense of humour, an irreverence for sacred cows (within limits, of course, given the very conservative world he comes from), and in this sense he reminds me just a little of Calvin’s awesome dad in Calvin and Hobbes. With Atticus as its anchor, To Kill a Mockingbird is a mature story about the fears and uncertainties of an intelligent, broad-minded child (as well as the fears and uncertainties of parochial, narrow-minded adults). But you probably need to be a grown-up reader to best appreciate this.
What I did remember very vividly (and this is probably responsible for my illusion that I remembered the whole book well) were the last few pages, including the shiver-causing passage where little Scout realises that the unfamiliar countryman leaning timidly against the wall – the man who saved her life – is Boo Radley, the children’s favourite bogeyman. (The revelation of Boo as something very different from the malevolent phantom of Scout and Jem’s nightmares is a literalisation of Atticus’ line “Most people are real nice when you can finally see them.”) And the lovely passage where Scout escorts Boo back to his house and then turns around at the door, viewing her town from an angle she has never been privy to before; the angle that Boo himself must have so often assumed in the past, hiding behind his window curtains, gazing out fearfully at the world.
It’s the perfect summing up for the book: the familiar made unfamiliar, the challenge of looking at things from a perspective that you’ve never had to (or been willing to) consider. It’s a challenge that thinking people will always have to face – for every battle won against a particular form of prejudice, new battles and new contexts will always arise – and that’s probably why To Kill a Mockingbird is such a timeless book even though the specifics of its narrative (the black man judged and condemned by an entire prejudiced town) appear dated today.