For book group this month, we’re reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those rare perfect books, yet I knew little of it until a decade ago. Sure, it was popular among the kids in my grade school and high school classes; I can remember all sorts of book reports on the novel, but I avoided reading the book, or watching the movie, until sometime in the mid-nineties. Now, the book and the film have become two of my favorites. Hell, the opening credits of the movie are often enough to make me misty. (The opening to the film adaptaion of The Joy Luck Club also has this power over me.)
I love To Kill a Mockingbird for many reasons: clarity of language, authorial tone, strength of characterization, etc. Most of all, I love how it captures the life of children in Depression-era Alabama. I relate strongly to Lee’s sense of nostalgia; I am reminded of similar experiences from my own childhood.
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Some, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
When I was almost six and Jem was nearly ten, our summertime boundaries (within calling distance of Calpurnia) were Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house two doors to the north of us, and the Radley Place three doors to the south. We were never tempted to break them. The Radley Place was inhabited by an unknown entity the mere description of whom was enough to make us behave for days on end; Mrs. Dubose was plain hell.
That was the summer Dill came to us.
Early one morning as were beginning our day’s play in the back yard, Jem and I heard something next door in Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch. We went to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy — Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting — instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke:
Hey yourself,” said Jem pleasantly.
“I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said. “I can read.”
“So what?” I said.
“I just though you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin’ I can do it…”
“How old are you,” asked Jem, “four-and-a-half?”
“Goin’ on seven.”
“Shoot no wonder, then,” said Jem, jerking his thumb at me. “Scout yonder’s been readin’ ever since she was born, and she ain’t even started to school yet. You look right puny for goin’ on seven.”
“I’m little but I’m old,” he said.
The wonder of the film is how faithful it is to the book. Yes, it leaves out some subplots (such as Scout’s conflict with her teacher), and it softens the edges around the characters of Atticus and Jem, but on the whole it is a remarkable translation of the text. In some ways, it’s even better than the book. The film’s quality is derived largely from the convincing performances of the child actors. Child actors are notoriously poor, but these kids go about their business with conviction.
Twenty years before To Kill a Mockingbird saw print, Carson McCullers produced The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a work of similar tone and color, set in a similar town at a similar time. There are people who dislike McCullers’ book, but I am not one of them. I love it. It captures a similar snapshot of the south as does To Kill a Mockingbird; it’s as if it might have been written about another town in Maycomb County.
In the following passage, Mick is precocious girl of about fourteen. Her brothers Ralph and Bubber are about two and six, respectively. They are poor kids in a poor town.
This summer was different from any other time Mick could remember. Nothing much happened that she could describe to herself in thoughts or words — but there was a feeling of change. All the time she was excited. In the morning she couldn’t wait to get out of bed and start going for the day. And at night she hated like hell to have to sleep again.
Right after breakfast she took the kids out, and except for meals they were gone most of the day. A good deal of the time they just roamed the streets — with her pulling Ralph’s wagon and Bubber following along behind. Always she was busy with thoughts and plans. Sometimes she would look up suddenly and they would be way off in some part of town she didn’t even recognize. And once or twice they ran into Bill on the streets and she was so busy thinking he had to grab her by the arm to make her see him.
Early in the mornings it was a little cool and their shadows stretched out tall on the sidewalks in front of them. But in the middle of the day the sky was always blazing hot. The glare was so bright it hurt to keep your eyes open. A lot of times the plans about the things that were going to happen to her were mixed up with ice and snow. Sometimes it was like she was out in Switzerland and all the mountains were covered with snow and she was skating on cold, greenish-colored ice. Mister Singer would be skating with her. And maybe Carole Lombard or Arturo Toscanini who played on the radio. They would be skating together and then Mister Singer would fall through the ice and she would dive in without regard for peril and swim under the ice to save his life. That was one of the plans always going on in her mind.
Usually after they had walked awhile she would park Bubber and Ralph in some shady place. Bubber was a swell kid and she trained him pretty good. If she told him not to go out of hollering distance from Ralph she wouldn’t ever find him shooting marbles with kids two or three blocks away. He played by himself near the wagon, and when she left them she didn’t have to worry much. She either went to the library and looked at the National Geographic or else just roamed around and though some more. If she had nay money she bought a dope or a Milky Way at Mister Brannon’s. He gave kids a reduction. He sold them nickel things for three cents.
But all the time — no matter what she was doing — there was music. Sometimes she hummed to herself as she walked, and other times she listened quietly to the songs inside her. There were all kinds of music in her thoughts. Some she heard over radios, and some was in her mind already without her ever having heard it anywhere.
An interesting — and vital — counterpoint to these two tales is Richard Wright’s Black Boy, his memoirs of growing up black in Mississippi. Although his book is set twenty years earlier than To Kill a Mockingbird and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and although he’s exploring the world of the Negro, many elements remain the same. Wright captures the wonder and awe of childhood in the south, the hardship, the dreariness, the bewildering world of adults.
Granny’s home in Jackson was an enchanting place to explore. It was a two-story frame structure of seven rooms. My brother and I used to play hide and seek in the long, narrow hallways, and on and under the stairs. Granny’s son, Uncle Clark, had bought her this home, and its white plastered walls, its front and back porches, its round columns and banisters, made me feel that surely there was no finer house in all the round world.
There were wide green fields in which my brother and I roamed and played and shouted. And there were the timid children of the neighbors, boys and girls to whom my brother and I felt superior in worldly knowledge. We took pride in telling them what it was like to ride on a train, what the yellow, sleepy Mississippi River looked like, how it felt to sail on the Kate Adams, what Memphis looked like, and how I had run off from the orphan home. And we would hint that we were pausing but for a few days and then would be off to even more fabulous places and marvelous experiences.
To help support the household my grandmother boarded a colored schoolteacher, Ella, a young woman with so remote and dreamy and silent a manner that I was as much afraid of her as I was attached to her. I had long wanted to ask her to tell me about the books that she was always reading, but I could never quite summon enough courage to do so. One afternoon I found her sitting alone up on the front porch, reading
She whispered to me the story of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives and I ceased to see the porch, the sunshine, her face, everything. As her words fell upon my new ears, I endowed them with a reality that welled up from somewhere within me. She told how Bluebeard had duped and married his seven wives, how he had loved and slain them, how he had hanged them up by their hair in a dark closet. The tale made the world around me be, throb, live. As she spoke, reality changed, the look of things altered, and the world became peopled with magical presences. My sense of life deepened and the feel of things was different, somehow. Enchanted and enthralled, I stopped her constantly to ask for details. My imagination blazed. The sensations the story aroused in me were never to leave me. When she was about to finish, when my interest was keenest, when I was lost to the world around me, Granny stepped briskly onto the porch.
“You stop that, you evil gal!” she shouted. “I want none of that Devil stuff in my house!”
My grandmother was nearly white as a Negro can get without being white, which means that she was white. The sagging flesh of her face quivered; her eyes, large, dark, deep-set, wide apart, glared at me. Her lips narrowed to a line. Her high forehead wrinkled. When she was angry her eyelids drooped halfway down over her pupils, giving her a baleful aspect.
“But I liked the story,” I told her.
“You’re going to burn in hell,” she said with such furious conviction that for a moment I believed her.
Reading these works of regional color makes me burn with a desire to write similar stories about the Willamette Valley. I have characters and settings and plots in my mind, and I’ve even set some of them to paper. Yet often I wrestle with the question: what is it that sets this place apart? There are certain qualities that make this place unique, but I cannot define them.
Off the top of my head, some 0ther strong regional novels include: My Antonia by Willa Cather, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, and the entire oeuvre of Garrison Keillor.