Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Most people are, when you finally see them."

After the Twilight debacle, I needed something good to read. I've been hankering to do a complete re-read of Guy Gavriel Kay's entire corpus, but I spied something on my stacks that I've been meaning to get to for a long time, so I figured, now's the time. Enter To Kill a Mockingbird.

I read Mockingbird back in high school, in tenth grade. (That being the case, I should admit that I've been a bit mean, perhaps, in previous mentions of my English teacher that year. She wasn't my favorite teacher by any means, and she did us the disservice of making my class read Ordinary People while the other classes were reading Mark Twain, but she did make us read Mockingbird, as well as Julius Caesar, which is when I first started to realize that maybe this Shakespeare fellow was highly regarded for a reason.

But anyway, back to Mockingbird. I assume the story is sufficiently well known that I don't need to summarize it, right? I loved it in high school, and we also watched the movie, which is also amazing. I've seen the movie several times since then, but I've never gone back to the book until just now. What an amazing piece of work it is, too! I know, this comes as no revelation to anyone who's read it, so I just have a couple of observations:

:: The book is a lot funnier than I remember it being. Aaron Sorkin once referred to his typical script structure as front-loading all the funny stuff and reserving the emotional hit for the last act; he called this "leaving the emotional hit in the tall grass". Mockingbird does this amazingly well. It interests me that more than half the book is gone before we even start to learn the details of the big case Atticus is working on. Meantime, there is a lot of humor in the first part of the book.

:: One thing I've never had the guts to try in my own writing is writing my characters' dialog in any kind of dialect, because I'm always afraid it's going to sound like an affected mess. Harper Lee gets it so totally, totally right. Example: her lower-class characters are always answering questions posed by women in the negative with the word "Nome". Of course this is what "No, ma'am" would sound like pronounced by someone with a Deep South drawl who doesn't enunciate terribly well. It's a brilliant effect, and everyone in the book has their own voice.

:: The story's ending is just so...right. I mean, there are good endings, there are happy endings, there are sad endings that feel hopeful and there are sad endings that are just terribly sad, but rarest of all are those endings that feel like this is the only way this story could have turned out, and it's satisfying in a way that most endings aren't. The only other story ending that leaps to my mind by comparison is that of The Shawshank Redemption.

:: I finished the book while I was on my break at work. Luckily I was in the back room, by myself, so nobody could see me start to cry when Scout says, "It would be like shootin' a mockingbird, wouldn't it?" What a beautiful line, what a perfect place for it! The "killing a mockingbird" metaphor had already been explained, much earlier in the book, and Lee saved it for its second mention at the most perfect place to use it. I'm in awe of Lee's sheer skill in terms of storytelling.

:: To Kill a Mockingbird seems to me to partly be about the falling of boundaries between worlds: the black and the white world, the poor and the not-so-poor world, the child and the adult world. Early on, Scout describes the world of hers and Jem's childhoods being bounded at one end by the house of Mrs. Dubose, and at the other by the house of Boo Radley. And through the book, both boundaries fall, don't they? First, Mrs. Dubose's, and then, the great mystery of the book, Boo Radley at the end. All through the book, the world gets bigger for these two children, first Jem and then Scout. It's not easy for them, and sometimes it's downright painful, but it can't be stopped.

:: Atticus Finch on courage: "It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what."

:: Jem Finch on people: "If there's just one kind of folks, why can't they get along with each other? If they're all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time...it's because he wants to stay inside."

:: Scout Finch, greeting the most mysterious person in the world: "Hey, Boo."

I rather hope that Harper Lee has a closet full of manuscripts for after her passing, if she is so dead-set against appearing in print again while she's alive.

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