Sunday, February 21, 2016

In Memoriam: Harper Lee

In 1966, desperate to find a book to read, I snuck into my brother’s room when no one was home and browsed through the books in his closet. I don’t know what made me choose To Kill a Mockingbird, but I do remember that once I began, I couldn’t put it down. I was twelve years old.

Two years later, the movie starring Gregory Peck (and the inimitable Robert Duvall as Boo Radley) aired on television, and all the characters I had fallen in love with came to life in black and white. That same year, men who had become my heroes in the Civil Rights Movement mostly because of my reading of the novel—Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.—lost their lives to the socio-political war that was devastating the country at that time.

To say this novel shaped my life is an understatement. I lost my father at a young age and was raised by a non-nurturing mother. Like so many others who’ve read this book, I both envied and longed for the type of strong, loving relationship Scout shares with Atticus. And I yearned for the wisdom of Atticus in my life.

When Atticus looked down at me I saw the expression on his face that always made me expect something. “Do you know what a compromise is?” he asked.

And I learned volumes about parenting from his example:

I had spent most of the day climbing up and down, running errands for [Jem], providing him with literature, nourishment and water, and was carrying him blankets for the night when Atticus said if I paid no attention to him, Jem would come down. Atticus was right.

This was such an important book in my life that when my own daughter turned twelve, I bought her a copy—and I ended up re-reading the novel from start to finish, falling in love with Atticus even more, now that I was a parent myself.

By the time my daughter was a teenager, I had become a teacher. In my second year of teaching high school, I was assigned freshman English. That year we read To Kill a Mockingbird together, and for twenty-five out of the twenty-seven years of my teaching career, I have read it again—mostly aloud, affecting a Southern accent, and always, always fighting back tears in certain sections:

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

“Hey, Boo.”

“Mr. Tate was right.”
Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
Before he went inside the house, [Atticus] stopped in front of Boo Radley. “Thank you for my children, Arthur,” he said.
(Gregory Peck’s line in the screenplay version is, “Thank you, Arthur. Thank you for my children,” as he extends his hand to shake Boo’s. To my mind, it is one of the simplest yet most beautifully moving scenes in the film.)

He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

In my early years of teaching, I was sometimes criticized for readingewwww aloud to my students. (‘They’re in high school now. They need to learn to read and comprehend on their own.’) To my way of thinking, these folks had it all wrong. What better way to learn to comprehend the dynamics of literature than to hear the words come alive? Hearing someone who is familiar with the text stream through the long sections of dialogue in the courtroom scene has to be better than trying to parse through Tom Robinson’s style of speech (“No suh, I’s scared I’d be in court….”) while keeping track of who was speaking and what significance there was in the sometimes calm, sometimes accusatory exchange of questions and answers.

Because I read the novel along with my students, I’ve read it in excess of a hundred times. Each spring I read it with a new batch of kids, and each time I learn something new. It took me years to figure out why Harper Lee included the chapter on Mrs. Dubose—because as a writer, I know that every chapter has a purpose, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how Mrs. Dubose supported the theme of the novel. Until I realized what she stood for. And then the epiphany came like a bolt of lightning.

“You know, she was a great lady.”

Yes, Atticus, just as the pre-Civil War South was, and it, too, suffered from a disease that ravaged it.

Over the years, as I’ve taught Mockingbird, I’ve thought fondly of Harper Lee. She would have been in her sixties when I first began teaching the novel. After I’d been teaching it for several years, I wrote her a long letter, never expecting any response, just wanting her to know how meaningful the book had been to me as a child and as an adult. She never answered, but this was her way, and everyone knew it. As the years went by, I would occasionally seek out her name on the internet to see how she was faring. Every year I’ve been able to tell my students as we finish the novel, “So Harper Lee is still alive…” (because 1960, the year the book came out, seems like hundreds of years ago to them). As it turns out, we are currently reading the book in my class. Tomorrow in each class period, I will tell them that Harper Lee has died, and we will talk about the legacy she has left behind.

Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel helped solidify the Civil Rights Movement in America. Since its publication, it has never been out of print. Countless generations of readers, old and young, have found friends and role models in Jem, Scout, Dill, Atticus, Calpurnia, Miss Maudie, Tom Robinson and the rest of the characters. The novel will continue to influence readers for generations to come.

Rest in peace, Harper Lee. Thank you for your life, thank you for your work, thank you for your heart. Your words will be with us forever.

Monday, February 15, 2016


Today’s blog post is dedicated to my long-time friend, Barbara Tinsley. A score of years ago or so—when our grandchildren were children—Barbara was a regular reader of one of the papers in the City News Group trio, and she became a fan of my weekly column. Over the years, we’ve had great conversations about life, kids, grandkids, and other joys. Her official duty as the unofficial president of my fan club is to poke and prod me when I neglect my blog (which has now taken the place of my weekly column). Thank you, Barb, for your friendship, which is so dear to me, and Happy, happy birthday!

People have asked if, when I retire, I’ll still get up at 4:00a.m. No. Absolutely not. I’m planning on sleeping in until 5:00 or maybe even as late as 5:30. Because “we were meant to see the beginning of the day/Ibelieve it was planned to lift us this way.” And because the best quiet time to write is before my head is filled with the daily news and dire predictions. I still won’t use an alarm clock (as I do not now), and I will still spend the last moments before I drift off with nothing electronic going except a soft bedside light—to illuminate the pages as I read myself off to dreamland. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately, in no particular order of love:

Plainsong by Kent Haruf. If you read novels for the sheer joy of discovering characters, read this book. I tried to read it slowly as it is not terribly long, and I fell in love with the characters so immediately, I never wanted it to end—and when I finished, I couldn’t start another book as I missed my newfound friends. Love, love, loved it. I want every reading friend to read this book, and I might have to guilt some people into it. (Barb, I put this one first as I really think you would love it.)

Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger. See the description above, and add a couple of murders and a plot twist or two. If you’re sharp and you read a lot of mystery, you’ll connect the dots before the intense climax, but that doesn’t really matter to this novel; it’s all about the characters. My bestie Donna sent this novel to me as a sweet gift, and I loved it so much I don’t think I can ever repay her.

Millersburg, by Harry Cauley. I am proud to say that actor, writer, director Harry Cauley is my friend, and we became friends because, well, I was a gushing fan girl over his novel, Bridie and Finn, and his memoir, Speaking of Cats. When I finished Plainsong, I dropped it off with Harry because I knew he would love it, and we subsequently had a phone conversation or two about it (Harry agreeing that it is “just lovely”). When I started Ordinary Grace, I remarked to him that it was similar to Plainsong, but with murder, and he replied, “That sounds like my novel, Millersburg.” How did I not know of this other novel of Harry’s? I hit Amazon immediately upon hanging up the phone. So once again, see the description above. Yes, there are two murders that occur, but the novel isn’t about them. Its subject is the people whose lives surround the circumstances of the murders, and it is Harry’s inimitable style and grace that makes this little book so satisfying. Again, I didn’t want it to end. (Harry also had a birthday this week. At 85, he is still writing up a storm, and I am the one who pokes and prods him to finish another novel because I just love his writing.)

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I would not have come to this book were it not for my book club. (Bless you, ladies.) If you’re a reader of great fiction, you may recall that Ishiguro is the author of The Remains of the Day (from which the screenplay was adapted). This book is nothing at all like that one. This book…. Oh, shoot, I don’t even know how to describe it. This book is imaginative fiction in its most brilliant and haunting form. Ishiguro, truly, is a genius, and is considered one of the greatest contemporary British novelists. (He was born in Japan but grew up in England.) This novel, to me, is an allegory—of sorts. And I really don’t want to comment further, other than to say there is an amazing storyline here… and ogres… and pixies… and dragons… and, of course, the buried giant. Here are my two favorite passages:

[King] Arthur charged us at all times to spare the innocents caught in the clatter of war. More, sir, he commanded us to rescue and give sanctuary when we could to all women, children and elderly, be they Briton or Saxon.

We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?

These books have sustained me in recent times. It is always heartening to know that, whatever calamity befalls me in the course of a day, at long last—in the remains of that day—I will rest upon my bed, a cat on either side, a dog nearby, and immerse myself in the brilliant stories of others. That, indeed, is lovely.