Harper Lee (Getty Images)
Harper Lee (Getty Images)

BOOKS

Why To Kill a Mockingbird is my perfect novel

In honour of Harper Lee, who died on Friday, Caroline O'Donoghue explains why a debut novel by a youngest child from an out-of-the-way town changed her life forever

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

“Hey, Boo.”

When faced with the man she has obsessed over her whole young life, the man she has run from, and hid from, and accepted gifts from, but has never looked directly in the face, the only thing that Scout Finch can think to say is this. Hey, Boo.

Upon hearing about the death of Harper Lee, at 5.15pm on a Friday, with everyone at The Pool HQ rushing frantically to get everything done so we can see our friends and family, and start our well-deserved weekends, there is a momentary crumpling of foreheads. There is a frowning, sad silence, but not a devastated outcry. She was an old lady. She wrote a great book. She wrote a book I have read about a dozen or so times, one that I always tend to pick up in the height of summer, when London feels as heated and frantic as Maycomb County. And even though she was old, and even though I knew she lived in an assisted care facility, and was blind, and deaf, and she had a rich, long, private life, all I can say is: “Oh. Oh no.”

To Kill A Mockingbird is a novel about three children: siblings Scout and Jem Finch, and their friend Dill. They live in Alabama, and their lives are changed when their lawyer father defends Tom Robinson, a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman. If you’ve never read To Kill A Mockingbird, or you simply haven’t read it since school, this will be the plot point you remember. Its place in literature is that of The Important Racism Novel. We encourage children to read it so we can introduce them to concepts that are both unendingly vast – slavery, segregation, the American South – and bluntly, idiotically simple: the world is not a fair place.

Meeting Scout Finch – a fellow ‘me too!’ – felt like having a little sister in an alternate universe, scrabbling around the Alabama in the 1930’s. 

The book came into my life when my older brother, one school year ahead of me, had to read it for class. I read everything Rob brought home from school, and had written his report on Goodnight Mister Tom the year previously. The Scout and Jem dynamic spoke to me immediately, and at twelve, I felt deeply entrenched in Scout’s struggle to keep up with her older, popular, more athletic brother. Scout and I were comrades, children that were precocious readers but utter innocents elsewhere. She is tactless, and hurt easily, and often very lonely. When I had to read the book for school, I painstakingly reminded my teacher that I had read it already, hoping for extra credit or extra attention or any small signifier that I was special in the class. If you are a youngest child, you will know this is a very youngest child thing to do. It’s a ‘look-at-me! I matter too!’ sensibility that you will have to try to quell long into adulthood.

Meeting Scout Finch – a fellow ‘me too!’ – felt like having a little sister in an alternate universe, scrabbling around the Alabama in the 1930’s. We see the world squarely from her height, cock-eyed and quick-witted and open to the thousand experiences that make up a childhood. The book takes her life of BB guns and treehouses seriously, and moves at the slow, sunny pace of an Alabama afternoon. As her family are slowly persecuted by their once-cheerful community, the warmth of the book turns to a severe mid-summer heat. Tempers and temperatures rise, and Scout’s idyllic world becomes claustrophobic, sticky and narrow.

A book that began as a hymn for a lonely child, became a code to live by, and quietly, became a nod of encouragement

Lee’s success with Mockingbird loomed over her like an ambitious older sibling, one she would rather retreat from than compete with. Her biggest contribution to literature after Mockingbird was in assisting Truman Capote (her lifelong friend, and the inspiration for Dill) with his research for In Cold Blood. I like this image of her, the one that was played by Catherine Keener in Capote and Sandra Bullock in Infamous. I like the idea of her, bolshy and hard-nosed and researching every facet of the murder that would inspire Capote’s novel. I like thinking that she started life as Scout, and grew to be a kind of Atticus Finch: in love with the law, intensely loyal to her friends and keenly, constantly in search of the truth.

Harper Lee finished her life as her third great character, Boo Radley. The more the world pressed their nose to the glass, the farther she shied away from it. She watched the world with an arm’s-length curiousity, appearing only occasionally and at unplanned intervals. To accept an award, or to write a long letter to O magazine.

Boo saves Scout, at the end of To Kill A Mockingbird. Walking home from a school play, dressed like a ham, Scout is attacked by Robert Ewell in a bid for revenge against Atticus. Standing on Boo’s porch, she recounts the gifts her friendly, strange neighbour gave her: “two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.” Sitting in my own home, thirteen years after meeting Scout Finch and a writer myself – the most ‘me too!’ of professions I can think of – I think of what Harper Lee would think of it, and what she has given me. One book. One book that I come back to, again and again, and that I see from different points of view every time I read it. A book that began as a hymn for a lonely child, became a code to live by, and quietly, became a nod of encouragement. That a debut novel from a youngest child in an out-of-the-way town could change the world and the way children read forever, and that if she can do it – well. Why not me too?

@Czaroline

Harper Lee (Getty Images)
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