My father had suggested I read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” on many occasions, but I shrugged off his pleas with the argument that she couldn’t have been that good if that was the only thing she had ever written. I eventually gave in when it was one of the choices for my middle school book report, and because our copy was the mass-market paperback size, I figured it as one of the shorter options.
When I began reading, I quickly realized how wrong I was to question her talent. Lee’s story dazzled me–her words, her precision, her commitment. I marveled at how she explored a young girl’s innocence and hope through the bigotry of the South and gently reminded the reader that no one is born prejudiced.
Mockingbird, for the few who are unfamiliar, is about a young girl nicknamed, Scout. Scout is raised by her single father, Atticus, a respected lawyer in Maycomb, Alabama. While Atticus defends an innocent black man in court on the charge of rape, Scout and her brother attempt to lure the local infamous hermit, Boo Radley, out of his home. Through their non-traditional interactions with Boo, they see beyond the small town gossip and allow the reclusive man to define himself.
Lee’s novel had moved me so much as a young reader and writer, that in addition to my report, I crafted a box with all the items Boo Radley had left in a tree for the narrator and recited a corresponding excerpt from the book. The passage read:
Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.
As a result of the love my family felt for that book, that mass-market paperback ended up in tatters. It was never our intention to destroy the book that meant so much to our father, a man born and raised in Mississippi. He had spent his formative years living in a community similar to the segregated South Lee depicted in Mockingbird. Her assessment of the discrimination corroborates the struggles my father faced simply for the tint of his skin. So my sister and I bought my father an anniversary copy to replace the worn-out paperback. When my sister moved out of the house she needed her own copy. Then I left home and needed one too.
Some time before Christmas, I was in a London bookstore and found a copy of Mockingbird with a stunning black and white cover and bought it as a surprise for my sister. Ever since then, every time my sister or I visit a foreign country we find a local bookstore and bring back a copy as a gift. We have amassed versions from England, France, Mexico, The Netherlands, and Germany. If we only find one copy in the foreign bookstore, the traveling sister always gives it to the sister back home. Perhaps, in our own way, we are making sure we don’t share the same regret Scout had for never giving back to Boo.
But what says the most about Lee’s book is not that we collect them or what it means to a family that is all too familiar with the ways of the South, but how, without fail, at least one copy has been in every bookstore we have visited. Its presence, on my bookshelf and other’s around the world, speaks to the impact Harper Lee’s words have had on my family and the universal appeal of her story.
I was saddened on February 19 of this year to learn of Harper Lee’s passing, but with her name lining my shelf, I understand why she once told Oprah, “I already said everything I needed to say.”
You can catch up on your reading list with other Cool Girls here.
featured image via: The International Business Times (Harper Lee book cover compilation)
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