Intersections – Watching the mockingbird
By Nicki Salcedo
I have no intention of reading Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” I won’t say I’ll never read it. Nevers catch up with me too quickly, but I’m not interested in altering the legacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It was not my very favorite book as a child, though it seems to be a book that is more unanimously liked than any other book put into the hands of schoolchildren.
I won’t read “Watchman,” because it reminds me that people like to rewrite history. If Atticus Finch was wholly good the first time, he must be gritty and real and racist this go-round. Maybe this new Atticus is the one Harper Lee intended for “Mockingbird.” I don’t know.
The reason why I liked “To Kill a Mockingbird” was not Atticus. I liked the idea of a town where a kid was free to find adventures. After the Atlanta Child Murders in the early 1980s, I was not allowed to go more than one house away at any time. My entire childhood was confined to directly across the street and directly next door. I could walk to and from school, but that was it.
It seemed like a dream to have an entire community as your playground. That’s what I liked about the book.
I liked the idea of an older brother who was my partner in crime. The answer back to my echo. Every girl in a family of sisters wanted a Jem.
I liked the idea of a frail friend from out of town who shared adventures with me in the summer.
When I later discovered that friend was modeled after Truman Capote, I liked the boy more. Capote wrote my favorite holiday story, “A Christmas Memory,” and though it was filled with sweetness and nostalgia, I knew his later life was not wholly good. It was gritty and real and cut short by drugs and alcohol.
The things I liked about “To Kill a Mockingbird” had little to do with the external drama. A wrongly accused black man. Reverent black church folk. Poor white trash girl. Violent redneck father. Sassy maid. Everyone a victim of something. It set my teeth on edge when I was a kid. I did not like that part of the story. A story about race is never told that simply.
If I loved the book, it was because of Boo Radley. He was the unexpected character in the story. The mysterious threat. The good in the shadows of town. Boo was part of the novel that could not be tied up neatly.
If I loved “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it was because there was a young girl with a strange name. I imagined I was her. It was easy to like Scout. It was easy to like the book. The lessons were simple. Racism is bad. Childhood is good. I liked the book for its observations about people and life. I’ve never met a person in my life who didn’t like “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I don’t want to start disliking it now.
Until late in high school, all the books I read were by men about men. Boys in New England prep schools. Cowboys. Adventurers. There’s the great debate I like to start among my friends. Were you “Catcher in the Rye” or “A Separate Peace?” If you want to see an interesting conversation ask a group of readers about Holden and Phineas.
No one, until now, has debated “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
For the record, I’m “Catcher in the Rye.” When I heard about “Go Set a Watchman,” I raged for weeks about phonies. I considered writing irate poetry in a baseball mitt. I thought about all the books of my youth that I loved. There were many. I thought about the kinds of stories fed to me in school. I thought about the kinds of stories I remembered. The ones I disliked. The ones that unsettled me.
I was in 11th grade before I read Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” If it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is probably a sin to ignore them. And still I read.
Some books were intended to have sequels. Some sequels turn out poorly. I’m notoriously the reader of only the first book in the series. I don’t like things ruined. I don’t like the past reimagined.
Let’s not change the past. Let’s not forget it. If we sandblast the Confederate memorial off of Stone Mountain, we’ll have to change every city named Columbus. We’ll need to boycott England, the first oppressor of our independence. We will have to rewrite all the literature of the world.
The past is perfect in fiction, because it isn’t real. We’d like to ruin that too. If it were up to me, I’d let Scout forever be a little girl. This doesn’t mean she shouldn’t grow up. It just means I’m not ready to do the same.
The final image in “To Kill a Mockingbird” was of Atticus and Jem. “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” That’s how I’ll leave them.