For the Kalamazoo Gazette 09-05-10
Readers inspired by themes, ‘magic’
What is it about Harper Lee’s coming-of-age novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” this year celebrating its 50th anniversary of publication, that holds readers, enticing them to reread it time and again?
It could be the Pulitzer Prize winner’s themes of justice, moral courage and isolation, the superb writing, its colorful yet believable characters and evocation of small-town life, the gripping courtroom scenes’ give-and-take, the children’s hair-raising adventures at night, or even its subversive, wry humor. For some, it’s that Lee has yet to publish a second book.
For Gwen Tarbox, who teaches children’s and adult literature at Western Michigan University, it’s that the book has messages for adult readers as well as children.
“It’s not just the children (in the book) who learn lessons. It’s not just children who need an education,” Tarbox says.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” similar to its literary ancestor, Mark Twain’s 1885 masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” offers few easy answers.
“Lee does not present a text in which you feel problems have been solved,” Tarbox contends.
“You can see people struggling, like Mayella Ewell (a white woman who accuses Tom Robinson, a black man, of rape and assault) with isolation. Scout (the novel’s main protagonist) wants to fit in with her brother, (widower) Atticus by himself …,” adds Sheri Ransford Ramsdell, who taught at Kalamazoo Central High School and at WMU. “It’s not simply a book about the South or about racism.”
Kalamazoo Public Library Director Ann Rohrbaugh also believes “To Kill a Mockingbird” can be read “at different stages of life, and we can come away with different take-aways.
“There are so many lessons,” she points out.
A number of those lessons-to-be-learned reside in Atticus Finch, based on Lee’s own father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a lawyer in Monroeville, Ala. If Huck Finn had the town drunk for a father, Scout and Jem had “the perfect father,” says Jan Drolen, who taught “To Kill a Mockingbird” 25 times at Hastings High School before she retired.
Atticus didn’t “sweat the small stuff,” Drolen notes. “He doesn’t make an issue about (the children spying on recluse) Boo Radley, for example, until necessary.
“He treats everyone with dignity. When (first-grader) Walter Cunningham comes to dinner, pouring syrup all over his food, Atticus discusses farming with him.
“He’s modest, such as when he shoots the mad dog in the street and never had bragged about being ‘the best shot in the county.’”
But the book is also fun, Drolen continues.
“You can kind of play detective, a step ahead of the characters,” she says, such as figuring out in the courtroom scene why Tom Robinson couldn’t have attacked Mayella Ewell, or identifying Boo before Scout does when he appears behind the door in Jem’s bedroom.
For Lyla Fox, who taught “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Kalamazoo Public Schools, the novel’s allure is the stuff of magic.
“The world can be really tough and awful. But if you don’t have a sense of magic, you won’t get through it,” she says. Lee provides that by having the children in her story — six-year-old Scout, her older brother Jem and their friend Dill (modeled on Lee’s childhood pal, Truman Capote) — create their own boogey man, in the form of the unseen neighbor Boo.
After all, Tarbox adds, “No amount of rational thought can protect someone from ignorance and prejudice.” She notes the 1960 novel was released a few years before this nation’s Civil Rights marches began.
“Just like Beowulf’s monster, Grendel, he only comes out at night. It’s a universal fear of what we don’t know — the monster under the bed,” Ramsdell agrees. But Scout realizes Boo, their boogey man, is a “quite, kind man who saved our lives,” she says.
Unlike Atticus, a more obvious hero who wages the uphill struggle for justice, and his plucky children, Fox says, “Boo is an unexpected hero. He stood and was counted when necessary.”
That may be the book’s most important lesson.
A few of our favorite things
Area fans of “To Kill a Mockingbird” selected some of their best-remembered parts of the novel:
• Lyla Fox recalls when the black people in the courtroom balcony stand as Atticus walks by: “He didn’t win, but they knew what he’d done.”
• Sheri Ransford Ramsdell cites the attempted-lynching scene, when Scout, only a third-grader, bravely engages one of the men in conversation; and when Jem discovers his torn pants, which he abandoned while escaping from the Radleys’ yard, have been mended and folded.
• Gwen Tarbox is fond of all the courtroom scenes, noting Harper Lee, whose father had been a lawyer, studied law before deciding to become a writer. That knowledge enabled the author to create a credible atmosphere.
• Jan Drolen loved the satire, particularly the missionary circle ladies who “worried about people thousands of miles away, but trashed Tom Robinson’s wife” right in their own town.
’Bird on the big screen
Movie a symbol of courage
It’s not always the case when a beloved novel is translated into a Hollywood, A-list-actor motion picture. But when it came to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” says Lyla Fox, retired KPS teacher, “That movie did the book proud.”
In some families, the black-and-white 1962 movie has became a legacy.
“Our mom made me read the book and watch the movie when it was on television,” recalls Danna Ephland, who teaches composition and humanities at Kellogg Community College. She encouraged her son, now a Western Michigan University freshman, to view the movie when he was in elementary school.
Casey McKittrick, who teaches African-American literature, American lit and film interpretation at WMU, says his father suggested he watch the movie when Casey was 16, as he’d already read the book eight times. He enjoyed it so much, he’s seen it some 15 times since.
“Gregory Peck brought a quiet stoicism and nobility, a certain gentleness of spirit,” he says.
While Peck’s portrayal won an Academy Award for best actor, the studio initially had wanted Rock Hudson, writes Charles J. Shields in his “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee” (Henry Holt and Co., 2006). The author, Harper Lee, had sought Spencer Tracy for the part of the small-town lawyer, based on her father.
But Peck’s quiet performance won over Lee, as did the screenplay by playwright Horton Foote, who also went on to win an Oscar for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“If the integrity of a film adaptation is measured by the degree to which the novelist’s intent is preserved, Mr. Foote’s screenplay should be studied as a classic,” Lee said in an interview, Shields notes.
Mike Marchak, Kalamazoo Film Society president, contends the movie “is a period piece. But the moral is still there, especially for younger generations” who didn’t live through segregation or the 1960s’ Civil Rights protests.
“Think about the setting,” he says. “Who else was doing that to create compassion?”
Marchak notes a number of strong elements that make the movie version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” worth repeated viewing, such as Peck’s powerful back-to-the-camera revelation of Tom Robinson’s murder.
“I think he (Atticus) was ashamed. Maybe he didn’t believe completely” the report that Robinson had tried to escape the police, he speculates.
He also notes how the camera cuts to Jem’s shocked reaction when Atticus, whom Jem believed had never even held a gun, kills the mad dog with a single shot.
“I love the way they lit Boo (played by Robert Duvall), when the bedroom door swings open and Scout smiles and says, ‘Hey, Boo.’”
Marchak also recommends when Scout (played by Mary Badham, an Oscar nominee) and Jem disobey their father and confront the lynch mob. That scene demonstrates the children “possess the same courage as their father.”
Some other memorable scenes:
• Scout rolling head over heels in the old tire, with Elmer Bernstein’s rollicking “Magnificent Seven”-like music.
• The children sneaking up the Radley house at night, filmed like a war movie, as they crawl single-file under fence wire and between rows of collard greens. (It’s on their hasty return Jem gets his clothes snagged on the fence, like Peter Cottontail, Marchack notes.)
• The children in their respective beds discussing their deceased mother, as the camera pans out to the porch, where Atticus sits listening, alone on the swing. His right arm is around the empty space next to him.
The movie, Marchack says, “is a great definition of courage.”