Monday, February 22, 2016

A Salute to Harper Lee



Profoundly life changing things happen in ordinary ways—at least that is my experience. I’m sure, in my ten-year-old eagerness to enter into a new story, I checked To Kill a Mockingbird out from the library without any inkling of the effect it would have on my life.

I doubt if I had finished the first page before realizing that it was quite different from Little House on the Prairie, or Henry and Ribsy. It sure was. With fascination, I read of Scout, a girl unlike any I had ever met—or have ever met since—who awed me with her independent and fearless spirit. Her father became one of the heroes of my life. The town she lived in, with all its memorable personalities, is a permanent fixture in my memory of unforgettable places, though I’ve never visited Maycomb, Alabama in real life.

The book held me in its spell till the last page. I remember sitting up far into the night to finish it, perplexed about the injustice it shockingly described, filled with terror for Tom Robinson and his righteous defender, crushed in heart by the cruelty of the community, amazed at the resignation to and acceptance of values that were contrary to what I had been taught. The book opened my eyes to a reality I would never have believed existed in my country.

To Kill a Mockingbird remains at the top of the list of books I have ever read—and I’ve read thousands. It stands apart, just as its author always did. She reportedly said, in 1964 on a rare radio interview that she just wanted to tell about the disappearing South, to be the Jane Austen of southern Alabama. She was writing that book the year I was born, and spent several years revising it from its original form. Sometimes I wished she had written many more books, but perhaps it held its position at the pinnacle of my reading career because it stood alone.

Then, last summer, the book she had originally written was published. The critics were critical; friends were mixed in their opinions. I appreciated Go Set a Watchman for some of the same reasons I admired the first novel—its brutal, unflinching truthfulness, its grappling with the condition of the human heart. I was as shocked as Scout to discover Atticus was not perfect, but didn’t love him any less. I could still hear the author’s voice describing her life, and it seemed genuine to me.

That life ended February 19, 2016. Her story will live on. I cannot write with her powerful pen, but am compelled to acknowledge with gratitude the effect her story had on me. I am thankful she told the truth. I never wrote her to say how Mockingbird opened my eyes and challenged my young soul, and now simply want to honor her with this small salute.


For the joy of reading,

Liz

6 comments:

  1. I didn't realize Harper Lee had passed away last week. Thank you for this salute, Liz. I didn't read To Kill a Mockingbird till I was an adult, and I still loved it. I am eager to introduce it to my son.

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    1. Kimberlee,

      Some fear the nature of the crime of which Tom Robinson is accused is inappropriate for young readers, but many adults I have spoken to were shocked as adults to realize they had been oblivious to that part of the story as children. I was one of those. It is a book I have enjoyed in every decade of my life.

      Liz

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  2. This is an excellent piece honoring Harper Lee. We all know Scout who called her father by his first name. Already we are stunned by that fact! Powerful book to read and reread.

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    1. Bonnie,

      And weren't you impressed, as a child, that Scout knew how to read and her teacher thought that was a crime?

      Liz

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  3. Thanks for sharing these memories and thoughts about Harper Lee and her books. I only read TKAM for the first time last fall and I really enjoyed it. I would like to read it again before I turn to To Set a Watchman. So many interesting parts to consider. Perhaps she was an 'early' reader too and her first grade teacher didn't appreciate it either. :)

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    1. Heather,

      There are powerful ideas in this novel that catch imagination at any age.

      Liz

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