Like many people, the first time I read To Kill A Mockingbird was in high school. I was fifteen and had decided long before I even opened the book to the first page that I was not going to like this book. It was old, and it was set in the American South – two things that I had no interest in involving myself with. I didn’t particularly have a good relationship with any book we had studied in class up to that point. It was as if our teachers had deliberately chosen the worst books imaginable to read in our studies.
So when I actually began Mockingbird and found myself drawn so intensely into the story, I was extremely surprised.
Being fifteen, I had no idea how this book sat in literary history. How it had spoken some incredible truth that people hadn’t been ready for when it was first published. How immeasurably valuable it was as a discussion about deep-rooted racism in the US.
Looking back, it seems absurd I had no idea about how important this book was, and that I had no idea what it would mean to me years later. I have only read Mockingbird maybe two or three times since I first read it in school, but it is one of those stories that has always stuck with me, this tale of innocence and dreamy childhood broken up by the realities of the disturbing and discriminatory world of adults. I have never found a book that does quite the same sort of magic truth telling that Harper Lee’s work does. She spoke about childhood and about learning about the world in a way that I really needed to hear when I was fifteen. I needed someone to shatter my image of the world, I needed someone to tell me that life was not easy and that there was no clear distinction between good and bad people, between right and wrong, and that sometimes, what was right was not always what prevailed. I needed someone to tell me that life didn’t always have happy endings.
I also needed someone to tell me there was hope. I like to think that is why she gave me Boo Radley.
Harper Lee’s self-imposed isolation and decision to never write another novel after the success of Mockingbird has always puzzled me. I never thought she was a woman with only one good story in her. A woman who had written such a beautiful and hauntingly truthful novel could not be empty after telling it. She must have had lots left to share, and I suppose she did, with the people closest to her. She was a woman who wrote not for the fame, but for the sake of sharing a truth she thought needed to be told without fear or judgement. As much as people always talk about Scout as the embodiment of the young Harper Lee, I always imagined her more as Atticus, heartbreakingly aware of exactly what life looked like in that moment, and yet so willing to stand for what she believed was right. For her, that meant stepping away from the limelight when it got too much for her.
She didn’t seek fame, she wanted to tell her little piece of truth.
I wish I could have heard more from her.
To this day, I still have not read Go Set a Watchman, for various reasons. Maybe I am still not quite sure if Harper Lee really wanted that story shared, or whether she was in fact coerced by her publishers to do so. Maybe I want to preserve the magic of the one book Harper Lee, to save the power of To Kill A Mockingbird without disrupting it with a new version of the characters I felt so dearly connected to. Maybe I am just not ready to trespass into Harper Lee’s mind again quite yet, feeling like a stranger intruding into the mind of one of my favourite writers when I’m not quite sure if I was invited. Maybe the moment will come many years down the track when I need that book the same way I needed Mockingbird when I was fifteen. I don’t know.
All I know is that I can never express how much Harper Lee’s work has influenced me, even when I didn’t realise it had. She helped me learn to imagine the world more complexly, in all its shades of grey and wild unimaginable colour. I can’t begin to think about how different I would be without having read Mockingbird. To Kill A Mockingbird helped shape me as a reader, as a writer and as a person. I can’t even begin to imagine what power that women held in her hands, and I can’t express enough gratitude that she decided to share a small piece of that with us.
In Memory of the Great Harper Lee. Vale.
To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman are both available at all good bookstores.
As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to shop at and support their local independent bookstores.
© Hayley New 2016