BY KAT SETZER
[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday through September. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]
I loved To Kill a Mockingbird when I was twelve years old. I read it for the same reason most twelve-year-olds do: it’s standard fare in middle-school literature classes. A compelling look at the south pre-Civil-Rights, it focused enough on outsiderness to trick my nerdy twelve-year-old self into believing it was just as interesting as the X-Men comics filling my bookshelves. Because, you know, they were the bar for judgment, not that silly Pulitzer Prize nonsense.
I just plain skipped school for most of seventh grade, feigning migraines to get out of going to the mid-sized North Georgian junior high that I despised. As a result, I was “homeschooled” for eighth, which generally meant my parents left me alone in the house with an Algebra 2 textbook and a mail-order encyclopedia on world history. My father would suggest books for me to read, ranging from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to The Stranger. We didn’t really have a system in place for judging my reading comprehension; instead, my parents, both math types, liked to regale me with stories of their own high school English classes, where they read the first and last chapters of books and nothing else. (Note that I believe these tactics are generally frowned upon by serious homeschoolers.)
My father thought I’d like To Kill a Mockingbird. Because of our demanding educational standards, I only remember bits and pieces of the novel from this period of my life, but it did leave me with the general sense that it was The Best Book of All Time. It had all the great characteristics that my favorite comics had, including children thrown into adult situations way beyond what their peers had to deal with (the anti-mutant sentiments of X-Men are based on racism), an older male mentor figure (Atticus Finch and Professor X would be BFF in a merged universe), a cast whose clearly superior morals made them outcasts (okay, so depending on which era of X-Men you read, this was debatable, but I was still pretty entrenched in the cartoon version on Fox Kids).
Recently, I decided to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird to see if it lived up to my vague memories. It turns out the story twelve-year-old Kat remembered isn’t the same as the one that I read as an adult. And no, I don’t mean that I’ve picked up on more sophisticated themes than my younger self could (although that’s true as well.) For some reason, I remembered this book as including a lot of kooky shenanigans with Scout, her older brother, and their creepy-but-misunderstood buddy, Boo Radley. It took me until about halfway in this time through to realize Boo is not, in fact, an active character for the majority of the tale. Instead, there’s some geek named Dill who dresses oddly and spews a lot of tall tales, and there’s a hell of a lot more about their father’s trial than the scenes in court.
At the time, I was engaged by the larger story of the novel: right versus wrong, racism in the South, etc. Rereading it now, I’m engaged more by the finer brushstrokes in the story: the changes in Jem’s character as he ages, the clear ambivalence on Aunt Alexandria’s part, the way Walter Cunningham’s father wavers pre-lynching when he realizes Scout is in school with his own son.
More specifically, I think the difference in my reading focus lies in the fact that Atticus Finch is a Good character. As a child, his Goodness was easy for me to latch onto—the same way it’s easy to fall for Harry Potter or Superman. This man is seemingly without fault: he’s smart, he treats everyone fairly—even the recluse next-door neighbor who may or may not have stabbed his father’s leg with a pair of scissors—and he abhors guns, despite being the sharpest shooter in the county.
The excitement of the story was watching him try to fight The Bad Guy—in this case, the Ewells and the inferior morals they represented—and the scenes that stuck out in my mind were the ones that supported this vision of a world with Good Guys and Bad Guys: I don’t remember games the children played that indirectly tormented the Radleys, just the goodies Boo left for them in the tree outside his house; I don’t remember Scout trying to deal with the other children’s taunts in the schoolyard and her misunderstanding of the meaning of their ridicule, just that the rest of the town was racist and the Finch family was not; I don’t remember all of Atticus’ interactions with the other townspeople leading up to the courtroom, just the case itself, and that Tom Robinson had clearly not committed the crime he was accused of.
As an adult, it’s nice to believe such characters exist, but I think that the aspect of To Kill a Mockingbird that makes it so compelling is that Atticus’ existence forces the other characters, with their weaknesses and strengths, to grapple with their own beliefs. The portrait of him painted by his daughter is, essentially, without human error. Were the story focused on him alone, it would probably be too flat to feel realistic. Instead of simply being a story about good versus evil, it’s a story about how average people deal with moral decisions.
Sadly, the VHS tapes of the X-Men cartoon didn’t have as much replay value.