Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music

Reckonings column, by Della Mallette, July 15 Grand Forks Gazette.

I’ve always been curious what people read because I think it tells much about oneself. I do understand why people don’t read if they’re never learned to read, but I have to admit I just don’t get why people who can read, don’t.

As I’ve said before, I read a lot of non-fiction because of my job. When it comes to fiction, James Lee Burke is my favourite author. He’s not what anyone would call an easy read—you don’t find many people at the beach lounging with a Burke. But I also go running to the library for the latest Janet Evanovich—you can’t tell me there’s a reader out there who doesn’t have a guilty pleasure!

What does that say about me? Let’s move on, okay?

Maclean’s is my favourite magazine. How can it not be, the magazines just land on my desk. Sometimes a few, sometimes a whole pile, and sometimes with a Reader’s Digest on top like a cherry.

I have my suspicions they come from the ghost of Stanley Orris, a decades-long Gazette owner/editor. Maybe he thinks I should read Barbara Amiel, the wife of Conrad Black, another Gazette owner. Am I being punished? Sorry, Stan, I go right to Emma Teitel and Scott Feschuk.

It was in Maclean’s that I read a story about Harper Lee and her new book, Go Set a Watchman.

It has been a long time since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s only published work before Watchman. The Pullitzer Prize-winning classic has over 30 million copies in print and is heralded by Library Journal as the best novel of the century.

Even though it has been deemed classic literature, Mockingbird still finds itself on the banned books list. The racial content, profanity and references to rape have caused many to challenge the book and have the novel removed from school libraries and classrooms.

I decided to reread it last week.

I went to the library determined to find Mockingbird and start it that very night. This old book—published in 1960—was already checked out! I knew there was no e-book yet (the author has not given her permission, and the book is not yet in the public domain); however, Lizanne found a copy in the Young Adult section.

(I wonder how many books cross from the Young Adult to Adult section? There can’t be too many.)

Before the end of the very first page, I was transported to southern Alabama of the 1930s and rediscovering Scout, Jem, Atticus, Calpurnia, Dill and Boo Radley. How could I have forgotten such rich, refreshing characters and fun antics—all wrapped around serious issues of racism, rape, bigotry and more.

That first day of school, what a scene! The teacher, Miss Caroline, prints the alphabet in enormous square capitals on the blackboard and asks if anyone knows what they are. “Everyone did; most of the first grade had failed it last year.”

How the teacher tries to give Walter Cunningham a quarter for lunch. “Nome thank you Ma’am.” (“Walter’s one of the Cunninghams,” Scout explains.)

And filthy Burris Ewell, who tells the Miss Caroline that she can’t send him home, he’s leaving—“I done done my time for this year.”

When Jem and Scout get air rifles for Christmas, Uncle Jack tells them: “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can him ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

I remembered the quote, but not why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Miss Maudie tells the kids, and us readers, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”

There are so many incredible passages and quotes in Mockingbird. Here’s just a very few:

Atticus tells Jem, “You’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash”;

“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” Atticus said;

And, “Atticus was feeble; he was nearly fifty.” Nothing to do with racism, that one, but certainly amusing.

And I rediscovered that wonderful word “scuppernong”!  It’s a species of grape native to the southern U.S. How could I have forgotten that!

Researching Harper Lee for this column, I discovered something interesting: Scout’s friend, Dill, was apparently inspired by Lee’s childhood friend and neighbour Truman Capote.

On Feb. 3, 2015, Lee announced that she would publish her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, in mid-July 2015. Watchman is a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, though it was completed before the latter. The novel is likewise set in Maycomb, Alabama, when Scout returns to visit from New York 20 years later.

According to news accounts, Watchman was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957; after her editor asked for a rewrite focusing on Scout’s girlhood two decades earlier, Ms. Lee spent some two years reworking the story, which became Mockingbird.

Some early reviews say readers could very well be disappointed—that Atticus is portrayed as a bigot, that not all the main characters have survived, that the tale is “lumpy” (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times).

Me, I’m going to say thanks, Lizanne, but you can take me off the reservation list for Watchman. I reckon I want Mockingbird to be just what it is—nothing more, nothing less.

 

Postscript

Worth only a few paragraphs in the book but a passage that struck me today is one in which Scout and Atticus are discussing Cousin Ike Finch, a Confederate veteran, the Missouri Compromise, and the trial of Tom Robinson. Take from it what you will, readers:

Atticus said, “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.”