Bitter in the Mouth: How a Mockingbird Gave Birth to a Little Canary

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Cheeky Writing

As I re-read, I also underlined this sentence from the first chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird: "[T]here were other ways of making people into ghosts." The statement is attributed to Atticus. It's his response to Jem's heated speculation that Boo Radley must be kept inside of his house with chains or other forms of intimidation. I hadn't remembered ever reading that sentence before. That's one of the pleasures of re-reading for me. The text of a well-written book remains very much alive, offering up different parts of itself -- or rather that I, very much alive and changing, am newly receptive to passages that previously have been eclipsed.

Boo Radley is Lee's most evocative creation. He has his counterparts in most if not all Southern gothic novels. Boo Radley belongs to a long line of shrouded, hidden, secreted away, or for some other reason "unseen" characters who are the embodiments of the anxieties, fears, and violations of the norms of the family, the community, and the greater world around them. In Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms, for instance, the figure in the shadows is the feminine alter persona of Uncle Randolph.

As I re-read, I began to think more about what it means to set a novel in the American South, and how I could contribute to a genre that has already given readers so many of the defining narratives of the region. By the time I reached the last page of To Kill a Mockingbird and the passage that would become the epigraph for my own novel, I was asking myself this question: What if the narrator, Linda, was the family secret? How would she "reveal" herself to the readers, and how would that unmasking change how her story is ultimately understood? In short, who do we see when we "finally see" her?

The closing exchange between Scout and Atticus sparkled anew for me for another reason as well. In my mind, "him" was Boo Radley and the other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. I had forgotten until I re-read the passage that Scout was actually referring to a character in The Gray Ghost. I did a bit of quick research and found that it was a real book, part of the once popular Seckatary Hawkins series of children books written by Robert F. Schulkers.

That Harper Lee is one cheeky writer. Her main character learns an important, indelible life lesson from a book on the last page of her own book. What elegant symmetry! And how hadn't I seen it before? What an apt way to affirm the inherent power of reading and reading young.

 

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