annotation by Kate Maruyama
I had the rare privilege of being completely immersed in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for three months, coaching an eighth grader for the Academic Decathlon. I actually wasn’t looking forward to it, I had sixteen year old’s impression of a hysterical Fifties white woman pointing her finger at the Wrong Man and screaming. I envisioned steamy sixties melodrama and some cuteness on the part of Scout.
But by the end of Chapter One, I was sucked in and, having to read the book two more times for detail, I felt privy to some brilliant writing. I was asking myself both, “How did she do that?” and “Why did she stop?” the age-old question about why this is Harper Lee’s only novel. Lots of rumors around the latter question, but this probably isn’t the place for them.
Lee is the master of hyperbole, character and satire. Every single line had something in it, from Dill’s preposterous and hilarious monologues to Scout’s adept observations, “Talking to Francis gave me the sensation of settling slowly to the bottom of the ocean. He was the most boring child I ever met.”
With one line she could deliver oceans of social commentary, such as when Scout tells her black maid, Calpurnia, “Cal,” I asked, “why do you talk n**ger talk to your folks when you know it’s not right?” We already know Scout has the unsullied view of a child and that she gets what racism is, but it is so deeply ingrained in her culture that she asks this question as if it were the most natural thing to do. But it is more clever that Calpurnia answers her as openly as she was asked.
It was hilarious reading this as a parent. When I told my eighth grade decathlete that the story was much funnier than I remembered it, she stared at me, blinking. Here she was trying to process everything from lynching to the KKK (had never heard of the organization) and the Holocaust and I was giggling at Dill and at Atticus’s pithy observations. But this only goes to prove a point I think a lot of writers don’t get: humor is human. I think that more humor with which a character deals with his or her awful life, the more effective the awfulness is. This book had me weeping at the end, when Scout recounts the year as it was probably seen from Boo’s house. I would not have been so affected if I hadn’t been fully on board with Scout and her temper, her wide-eyed look at the world, but, most importantly, her straightforward and humorous take on life. Atticus’ levity was best projected through his humor as well. Thoroughly stressed out from having almost been overrun by a lynch mob, and having found Dill, runaway from home hiding in his children’s bedroom, he says, “From rape to riot to runaways,” we heard him chuckle, ” I wonder what the next two hours will bring.” Lee could have written a dull but straightforward drama, with much hand-wringing, but through these characters and their humor and the children’s innocent view on life, she has painted a hair-raising portrait of the South in the 1930s, while quietly commenting on the South in which she dwelled in the late 1950s when things had not much changed. I don’t think the hand-wringing doleful version would still be on the shelves now.
Scout’s voice gave Lee freedom with simile and metaphor and she came up with some beauts that only a child could coin, but that ring true for any reader: from her teacher looking “like a peppermint drop” to Mayella Ewell on the stand, “like a steady-eyed cat with a twitchy tail.” Only Jem could talk about Maycomb being like a caterpillar in a cocoon, from an adult’s mouth it would sound corny, but a child just realizing that the furry warmth he lived in is an illusion, it is a more effective metaphor.
The most heart-breaking passage I know of in the book is when, after the trial is lost, so horribly, Dill proclaims he will be a circus clown when he grows up, “I’m gonna be a new kind of clown. I’m gonna stand in the middle of the ring and laugh at the folks.” This tiny odd and hilarious boy has worked his way into our hearts with humor. He is the only one who really gets that Tom Robinson’s being railroaded on the stand was something godawful. He has a weeping fit and has to leave the courtroom; hundreds of people around and this little boy is the only one with a visible conscience. And this is his brave, very childlike, but beautiful solution.
Lee is so good at atmosphere. Chapter 28 should be taught in writing classes in a lesson in tension. She gives us an unseasonably warm night, no moon, which limits our scope of vision and takes us on a carefully described walk to the school. The children have a fake scare from a school friend. There is attention paid to an oak tree, the coolness beneath it being the only evidence of its presence and some reflection on how illicit activities (fights and dice) took place there because no one but the Radleys could see it. Every part of this walk on the way is echoed in our terrifying return journey. We then enter the warmth and the humor of the school hall where the whole town has turned out for fun and games, and the contrast stays with us. Lee carefully sets up Scout’s embarrassment over the pageant to give a reason for their staying behind and the moment we get back outside, the heat, the darkness and the fear are oppressive. To this Lee adds the limited vision and hearing of Scout’s costume. The attack by Ewell is terrifying and yet while the reader is frightened, Lee gives us Scout’s fear in childlike increments. Only when she sees the damage to the costume, hears of Bob Ewell’s death and sees her brother’s arm does she truly realize how much danger she was in. This was a section of the book totally relevant to what I am writing now and reading it three times allowed me to articulate what it was that made things work: that was most helpful.
The ladies’ tea was almost as tense as the climactic scene of the attack. Lee is so good at defining all of the characters present and Mrs. Merriweather’s shockingly racist carryings on made this Yankee want to punch someone. But, like every scene in this book, there isn’t only one thing going on here. Scout is bored at a tea, but upon listening she realizes that social warfare is being waged. Everything each lady is saying is a parrying thrust and it is only at the end of this scene that Scout realizes how brave Miss Maudie has been to hold her own views, and how braver still Aunt Alexandra is to exist in this den of snakes. Aunt Alexandra had seemed so out of touch with the trial and Tom Robinson’s troubles, but when she hears of his death, Scout sees it has all been just an act, she has been profoundly affected by everything that has happened: she has just been trying to keep things normal for the kids. Suddenly, this scold–this petty enemy of Scout’s who had been foiling her at every turn– grows in Scout’s eyes. It is a huge growing up moment for our girl when she sees her Aunt and Miss Maudie go back into the party while they know Atticus and Calpurnia are on their way to tell Tom’s wife that he has been shot, trying to escape wrongful imprisonment. Here Scout says, “After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.”
What to do with any of this is hard to process even still. But it will make me mindful that characters can be built in quiet moments in a way that, when the world finally does crumble around them, we can be more affected by it. Obviously I’m not going to create a Scout, or adopt a colorful Southern way of having my characters talk, this is not my point of reference. But Harper Lee caught a moment in history so beautifully, and supposedly mined a good deal of her own life to create it and make it real. I wished she’d kept writing, but she left herself a hard act to follow. This book is simply a reminder to pay attention: a lot is going on around us and it is in the subtleties of character that larger stories can come to life.