For Banned Books Week, we’ve asked our writers to pick a frequently challenged book and tell us how that book has affected them. Today, Kathleen writes about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird has always been one of my favorites, and I cannot remember when I first read it. I know I was too young to understand exactly what Mayella Ewell was accusing Tom Robinson of doing. Too young to understand the veiled implication during the later trial that in fact her father was her abuser. Too young to understand that Mrs. Dubose was anything other than a mean–though pitiful and lonely–old woman.
I know I identified with Scout, as both the narrator and as a somewhat outspoken young lady. I wasn’t much in the habit of keeping my ideas to myself either. I wished I had as much freedom to roam my own small town as Scout had, and I wished I had an older brother. I saw my parents as Scout did: older and fustier than most. I had neighbors similar to hers even though my hometown was set forty-odd years after the events in the book, in decidedly “Yankee” territory.
That I express surprise at my parents’ ownership of the book is telling. As a parent myself I’ve been wont to joke that I subscribe to the “Atticus Finch School of Child-rearing.” Even as a kid I saw Atticus as basically forthright in discussing the ways of the world with his children. He told them the truth. He did it in language that would sail over their heads–as it did mine–for many years to come. Nonetheless his words resonated with veracity. Atticus’ style was familiar to me. If they didn’t address a subject outright, they left the edifying material available for me to read, thereby informing myself. If words were used in conversation or on the evening news that I didn’t understand, I was, er… “encouraged” to look them up. In my Funk & Wagnalls. Look it up, or “don’t expect an answer” was the essential translation.
This could end in one of two ways. In the first case I would get bored looking up twenty other words to figure out what the bloody hell the first one meant anyway. In the other, I would get distracted by the fascinating meanings of many other words along the way. The effect was the same: I increased my already expansive array of “fifty-cent” words. This guaranteed I would impress teachers, ace the verbal section of the SAT, and make myself a target for my peers. The latter of those was a less fortunate side effect.
I suspect my parents had the better end of the deal. They got to evade any squirm-worthy questions. Now that I am a parent myself, I generally just suck it up and answer the damned question. Yes, a nice glass of wine, or occasionally a vat of the stuff, is needed for these moments. However, a Google search is much scarier than a dictionary. I shudder to think what a web search of a term like… oh, let’s say “sodomy” might turn up for an unsuspecting ten-year-old. Yep. My parents had it easy by comparison. But I digress.
My own home town could be disparagingly known as “white bread” at the time I grew up there. Everyone was of some European descent or other. Irish, Italian, and Polish were the major representative groups, along with a smattering of German. My mother worked in the hospital of a nearby city with a much more diverse population. There her co-workers were Filipino, Asian Indian, Korean, and African American. She made a point of letting me know that “good people are good people” no matter where you found them or what they looked like. I wasn’t completely ignorant of the idea of racism, but I had never really encountered it. It is a leading if obvious theme in Mockingbird. I identified with the idea of “white trash” residents of everyday USA, if only because it seems every town has some group of residents to whom the term may be applied. I understood that characters like Calpurnia and Tom Robinson were the good guys regardless of their skin color. I wasn’t really surprised or uncomfortable at those depictions. Instead I was discomfited by the idea that this kind of bias could have such violent and irrational outcomes. Despite the fact that nearby New York City was full of stories of precisely this type it just wasn’t quite as real to me at the time.
Today, as a more experienced adult in–gasp!–midlife, I see a different and even more broad theme. Virtually every character is somehow marginalized within society: the undereducated and disadvantaged, those of different races, children who are not really empowered to demand respect, drug addicts, the elderly. There are so many boxes into which we can place people. In the end though, we are still individuals with families, identities, feelings, and experiences that shape us. Each one, not so different than the other if only we were not so blinded by our own provincialism to see our commonality.