A cornerstone is something that has an important quality or feature on which something else depends. However, to say that one particular book is a cornerstone in my life may be over-egging it a bit. However, I first read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in 1979 when I was sixteen and long before ‘The Government’ (no names, no pack drill!) decided that it should be superseded on the school syllabus by books from the English canon of writers. And, as part of the long road to discovering who I’m going to be when I finally grow up, I have read it every ten years since.
So, when I was sixteen for me the book was about being a child in an adult’s world. It was full of contradictory messages and oblique lessons in how to behave in circumstances a child might not understand. I too had lost my mother at an early age and so identified with Scout and Jem but, by the late 70s had a caring step-mother as well as a good father so I could afford to be generous with my sympathies. I was also looking for love so did not quite understand why there could be no heart-hugging romance for Mayella Ewell, nor did I fully appreciate the references to domestic abuse or the dangerous strains of racism the book explores. The strong thread of justice which runs through the novel was, however, something which imprinted itself on me even then.
Ten years later I was twenty-six, was very newly-married and persuaded my husband to read it too. That time I saw it through his eyes as well as my own and, rather than being the child in it, now I was the parent-to-be, full of nurturing and protective thoughts. I also understood much more about the dangers inherent in the rape storyline and how Atticus’s defence of Tom Robinson was both a gesture of defiance against and a challenge to the community in which he lived. I’d also watched the 1962 film by this time and had fallen a little bit in love with Gregory Peck!
At thirty-six, I was able to open my lens wider and take in the marvellous cast of other characters and the notion of family and heritage which the book also investigates. The children’s friendship with Dill also interested me because, with children of my own by then, their friendships were part of the fabric of our lives.
At forty-six things changed again. By now I’d seen loved ones face death with a mixture of courage, rage and acceptance and had had first-hand experience of living with someone who could not face going out of the house. So it was Mrs Dubose’s story and that of Boo Radley which resonated with me that year more than they had done before. Also, by this time I was writing novels myself so it was the language and deft control of character and plot which impressed me. Furthermore, I was intrigued by Harper Lee’s own story and had started to understand the enormous personal price she paid after the book’s publication. How much my writing style has been informed by the novel I cannot tell. I only know that passages such as this are, in my view, examples of sublime craftsmanship:
‘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.’
I’m five years away from re-reading the novel again and am excited to discover what I’ll find it in this time and what this will tell me about myself and my life. I’m also excited because the lovely Lauren Woosey of Quercus Books, who first read the novel herself when she was sixteen and who is now twenty-six has agreed to follow me and re-read the novel every ten years too. So my experiment will hopefully continue.