Fifty years ago, Harper Lee had the kind of success that most writers only dream about: Shortly after her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published on July 11, 1960, it hit the best-seller lists. In 1961, it won a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1962, it was made into an Academy Award-winning film. It has never gone out of print.Reading this book is a rite of passage for most adolescents in the US. Mary McDonagh Murphy interviewed writers, journalists, historians, and artists to collect their impressions in her book, Scout, Atticus & Boo. The NPR story also includes thoughts from students who recently read the book.
Many women identify with feisty Scout. My spouse sees Atticus, especially in Gregory Peck’s movie portrayal, as the ideal father. In the NPR story, Joanne Gabbin, a professor of English at James Madison University in Virginia, saw her own father and grandfather mirrored in another character:
In Tom Robinson, the African-American man unjustly accused of rape, she saw not a victim, but a hero. He reminded her of her father and grandfather — African-American men who put up with untold humiliation in order to take care of their families.To Kill A Mockingbird touches so many people in so many ways. For me, it illustrates the power of stories. Statistics may demonstrate racism or sexism or poverty other iniquities, but even with glitzy animated graphics they cannot enthrall us as plot and people do. Stories may be fictional, like To Kill A Mockingbird, or completely true, like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In either of these cases, the way we come to know the characters and care about them (even if we hate them) helps the lessons stick.
Beautiful, poetic prose helps as well. NPR includes an excerpt from the book. My own favorite image arises when Scout describes grown ladies dealing with the heat of an Alabama summer. They add layers of talcum powder throughout the day, so by nightfall they resemble a frosted pastry. I am paraphrasing, but that picture embedded in my brain over 30 years ago. Every summer it flits through my neurons again during hot spells.
To Kill A Mockingbird hit bookstores a year before my birth. By the time I read it, much had changed in race relations and our attitudes toward mental illness. We still have progress ahead, since iniquities still plague the world.
But I have faith in the power of stories to help us mend our ways.
Click on the images above to see their source.