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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

My summer of story: Mockingbird

This is the summer of Harper Lee, in our house and all over. My wife brought home Go Set a Watchman, Lee's new-published novel that was a very early draft of what became To Kill a Mockingbird, the most-read American novel of all time, along with the Lee biography Mockingbird and a copy of the classic novel itself, even though I’d told her I’ve already got one. (She wanted her own.) So I pulled out my copy and read To Kill a Mockingbird again, this time paying attention ... to the story.

It’s not a classic story in the arc-of-narrative sense: as her biography makes clear, Lee worked long and hard with her editor, “Tay” Hohoff of J.B. Lippincott, to weave and stitch together what was originally more like a series of short stories, united by their Depression-era time, their small-town Alabama setting and the young Scout’s narration. What grew from that work is a novel that is still pretty episodic: there’s the chapter about Miss Maudie’s fire, the chapter about Jem reading to Mrs. Dubose, the chapter about Aunt Alexandra coming to stay.
    But nearly every good working story creates some form of tension; so many really good ones convey a sense of mystery, and the truly great ones touch on larger, deeper concerns. Mockingbird does all these — and even though the story’s great drama, the trial of Tom Robinson for a rape he didn’t commit but will be convicted of anyway because he is black, doesn’t begin until page 85, the tension and mystery that run even deeper through the novel commence on page 9, in chapter 1.

Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. People said he existed, but Jem and I had never seen him.

Scout and Jem’s neighbor is Boo Radley, who hasn’t been seen to leave his house in their lifetime. As they and their odd, sensitive friend Dill play out schemes for drawing Boo out, none of which succeed, the children’s imagining of the phantom — “about six-and-a-half feet fall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained” — gives way to a slowly growing sense of the story’s true mystery: why in the world people can be so evil to each other sometimes.

    “You reckon he’s crazy?”
    Miss Maudie shook her head. “If he’s not he should be by now. The things that happen to people we never really know. What happens in houses behind closed door, what secrets —”

This mystery broadens, and deepens, as Scout and Jem’s witnessing of Tom’s trial opens up the darkness within their pleasant little town. When the prosecutor’s haranguing of Tom on cross-examination — “Are you being impudent to me, boy?” — stirs Dill to erupt in tears, outside the courthouse they encounter one of the few white folks in Maycomb, if not the only one, who treats black people as equals.

“Cry about what, Mr. Raymond?”
    ... “Cry about the simple hell people give other people — without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people, too.”

Even when I first read this book at 12, Atticus the noble lawyer father seemed a little too wise and faultless to be real, and he still does; but Mockingbird is beyond criticism, and for good reason. It touches us so deeply. I finished the novel this time drenched in my own tears, feeling like a part of me has always been Boo, the part that maybe I put away when I learned how cruel the world could be. The story has touched generations this way; and it has become, over generations, so much a part of our ongoing struggle to wake up from the cruelty and violence that grows from our fear of people who only look different.

    He leaned in the doorway. “What, son?”
    “How could they do it, how could they?”
    “I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it — it seems only children weep. Good night.”

    This is a struggle that, as other events this summer have made so clear, we still have, and maybe always will. Children will grow up and discover the world is cruel, mainly because adults can’t seem to see what is so plain and clear to a child’s eyes. That’s our world; and I think that’s why, at heart, this story goes on touching just about everyone.

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