'To Kill A Mockingbird' Anniversary: Anna Quindlen On The Greatness Of Scout
By Anna Quindlen
From the new book "Scout, Atticus, and Boo," edited by Mary McDonagh Murphy (HarperCollins, 2010)
I took "To Kill a Mockingbird" out of the library at Holy Child Academy, where I went to school through eighth grade. But I can't exactly remember what year it was or how old I was.
I totally remember the experience. It's just all these people In this town, and you are visiting and you stay, and then at the end, you can't believe that you have to leave, and then sooner or later, you go back again and revisit them all over again. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is probably in the top three of books like that, where you utterly live in the book, and walk around in the book, and know everyone down to the ground in the book, and then leave, and then inevitably come back. I can't imagine anyone I like reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" and then not rereading it.
I've realized over the years that I have a completely different orientation toward the book than most people do, because at some essential level early on, and even as I got older, I don't really give a rip about Atticus. I mean, he is fine and he is a terrific dad and he does a wonderful thing, and so on and so forth.
But for me, this book is all about Scout. And I don't really care about anybody else in the book that much, except to the extent that they are nice to Scout and make life easier for Scout. I love Calpurnia because of Scout. I really like Jem and feel like I know him because of Scout. I'm totally perplexed by and sort of furious at Atticus when he has their aunt move in, who is just a heinous creature and is clearly there to get Scout to wear a skirt and wash her face, because I so don't want her to do anything like that. I think one of the reasons I became so obsessed with Harper Lee, when I was older and knew more about her biography, is because everything that she did convinced me that she was just a grown-up Scout who hadn't gone over to the dark side of being a girlie girl.
I looked over the book again about three months ago. It's still always about Scout to me because there really aren't that many of those girls. There were hardly any of those girls in our real life, and there aren't that many of them in books. So you store them up as a hedge against the attempts of the world to make you into something else.
Scout is totally real and totally imperfect, and she has the best two words in the book and two of the best words that have ever been put into any book by any writer: "Hey, Boo." There are moments in books that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, and "Hey, Boo" is one of those moments.
There are some women that you like, but they don't quite get the Scout thing. I remember being with a group of women once, talking about Little Women and asking about the characters, "Which one were you?" Every time someone would say Amy, my shoulders would sort of go up. And you do encounter that thing with "To Kill a Mockingbird" sometimes--people who just don't get Scout. I remember once someone telling me that they thought Scout was a peripheral character, and I was shocked out of my skin. They really thought Atticus was the centerpiece of the book, and it just isn't true.
There is that wonderful scene in the classroom where they have that new teacher who is very much the girlie girl, the one who tells her that Atticus taught her to read wrong and who then flips out because the cootie climbs out of the Ewell boy's hair. Scout just keeps trying to parse the world for this poor woman, to make her understand. She is much more like Atticus in some ways than Jem is, because you can tell there is this roving intelligence.
You can tell she is a writer, because she sees so much stuff. That moment when she is rolling down the hill in the tire and she hits the Radley house, and she hears the laugh from inside but she sort of keeps it to herself for a long time. She can't even tell the people who are reading the book that she heard it. That is a writerly detail.
I feel like a lightning bolt is going to come through the ceiling, but I have to say that "To Kill a Mockingbird" isn't a writerly book. There are not a whole lot of verbal pyrotechnics. It's not a Southern novel in that way. When we think of the classic southern novels, we think of Faulkner, for example: detail upon detail and metaphor upon metaphor. This is a pretty plainly told story. It reminds you of that old saw that editors tell reporters: If you've got a story to tell, tell it; if you don't have a story to tell, write it. She's got a story to tell, so she doesn't have to use verbal pyrotechnics. There are some small moments when she lets the writing bring the way the street looks or the town looks into sharper focus. But just look at the way, for example, she describes the ham costume, which has always been, to me, kind of a Rosetta Stone. Scout isn't dressed up like Bo Peep or an antebellum Southern girl. She is dressed like a ham, and the description is as basic as can be. [Mrs. Crenshaw, the local seamstress] molds chicken wire, puts canvas over it, and paints it. The fact is, you totally get it. You can see that ham in your mind's eye. So she does not make the writing do the work. She lets the story do the work. One of the interesting things is, for example, that the prose could not be more different than Capote's prose, which is so fulsome that sometimes when you are reading "Other Voices, Other Rooms," you think, Oh please! Just pull back 20 percent for me. She has pulled all the way back to the bare bones of story and character--mainly character, I think.
I don't think Truman Capote had anything to do with "To Kill a Mockingbird." Come on, think of how he would have ginned up all kinds of scenes in that book. There is just no way, to my way of thinking. You know, just by reading "To Kill a Mockingbird," that Harper Lee, who is obviously Scout, is a person with a grounded self-esteem, surrounded by affection. Whereas you have that horrible moment where her hideous second cousin, Francis, the one that she beats up and calls a whore-lady with no idea what that means, says something terrible about Dill, who is based on the boy Truman Capote. He says he doesn't come to visit in the summer. His mother doesn't want him and she passes him around from person to person, and you think, Oh, that little boy is going to be in real trouble, and, of course, that little boy was.
There is a trancelike aspect to the whole thing. Those people become more real than real people are. It's what you are aiming for when you're writing a novel, that you'll feel like the characters are more real than the people you eat dinner with every night. And the other thing that is so incredibly engaging about it is that it feels true. Sometimes people will say, "Well, I don't like the ending to this book or that book because it makes me sad or it wasn't satisfactory." In this book, you know where it's going to end, because you know what the true thing would be to have happened. The way things play out in the courtroom and then the way things play out that night when Scout is walking home in the ham costume, which is incredibly terrifying, and then the resolution of the Radley story, which is about as affecting as any story line that you can imagine. Every kid has had that house in the neighborhood that your friends would dare you to knock at on Halloween. The idea that the person in that house is not a monster but a prisoner is so beautifully wrought in this book that I think you're just totally present in it the whole time you are reading it. At that moment when she says "Hey, Boo" and her father says, "Jean Louise, this is Mr. Arthur Radley"--it doesn't get any better than that.
This book is filled with the use of the word nigger. I mean, it is in here over and over again, and somehow, it stays off the banned book list. ["To Kill a Mockingbird" is often challenged, however. It is number 23 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.] I haven't seen the kind of uproar [as for "Huckleberry Finn"], and I think it is because the relationship between the white people and the black people in the book is so true, not to the understanding of white people, but to the understanding of black people. There is nothing condescending about it. There is that moment when Calpurnia takes them to church and people are saying they have their own church, don't bring them to our church, and Calpurnia says, well, you know, I'm taking care of them, or they are my children, or something like that, and one of the women says, is that what you call what you do during the week? To make clear: OK, we all know there is a pecking order here, and language is harsh, and the way they characterize each other is harsh, but the truth surmounts the harshness, in a way. It doesn't blunt it. It justifies it.
I think there are certain books in which the characters are so real and so vivid that you feel as though they've become close personal friends. And that goes a long way to explaining why books last.
That's the reason why "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," which in many ways could feel quite antiquated, still sells every year, because Francie is somebody that readers feel as though they know, and so they revisit her over and over again.
I think there is no question that that's true of this book. It is also a tremendous teaching tool. If I were teaching eighth graders and I wanted to talk about prejudice and doing the right thing and doing the hard thing and what it means to be female and what it means to be a citizen, this is on the top three or four. So it keeps coming around again in that way. And I think there are also books that give you a feeling about your possible best self, and this is one of those books. "A Wrinkle in Time" is one of those books. Little Women is one of those books, and this is definitely one of those books. That sense of being part of something that calls upon the best that people can be--that's really exciting and satisfying, and that gets you in the gut.
People tend to dismiss books in which the centerpieces are children or young adults. I think it is very easy to slot this into the Young Adult category like some of the other books that I've mentioned. I just think that's stupid. You can call "The Catcher in the Rye" a young-adult novel all you want, but it's still going to speak to this new generation of readers.
The difference between "The Catcher in the Rye" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" is, "The Catcher in the Rye" usually doesn't survive adulthood. I've known some people who've gone back and read it and thought, this was my favorite book when I was sixteen. What was I thinking? I don't know anybody who feels that way about "To Kill a Mockingbird." You come back to it and you are still just sucked right into it. You know, you are sucked into it in a completely different way as an adult than you were as a kid because you understand what Atticus is facing as what was not then called the single parent. You are sucked right back in it. By the way, in his own times, Dickens's work was denigrated all the time because it was popular. I love the literary tradition that suggests that if something is popular, it can't really be first-rate. Give me a break.
I know a fair amount about Harper Lee. Every year or two, when I was a young reporter, I used to put in a formal request to interview Harper Lee. As a writer, there were a couple of things that obsessed me about her. There are lots of writers who have one great book in them; most of them write seven or eight. I was drawn to the notion of a woman who wrote one great book and then packed it in, for whatever reason. There are different theories about why she did so, but I loved that idea. The second thing was that as someone who has been on both sides of the yawning maw of the publicity machine, who has both interviewed countless authors and been interviewed many, many times, I love the fact that she wouldn't play. Every time I got turned down for an interview, there was part of me that thought, Oh yeah! I gathered that HarperCollins had a very polite nice boilerplate letter that they sent to hundreds or thousands of us over the years, and I got it a couple of times.
Look--a million times, I've been asked with each of my books, "Are you going to write a sequel to "Black and Blue"? Are you going to write a sequel to "Blessings"?" Can you imagine the pressure on Harper Lee to write a sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird" once the movie came out and you could see that it kept selling every year? They just must have thrown rose petals and chocolates and millions of dollars at her feet, and I don't know whether she couldn't do it, but I prefer to think she wouldn't do it because, of course, it's utterly wrong.