To Kill A Mockingbird

It has been said that everyone has a book inside them. I’m not sure who said it, and I don’t know if it is all that true, though I have always felt it to be so for me. Of course we live in a world now where lots of folks want to be famous, and even more want to be rich, and therefore they are always looking for ways to make that happen. I suppose writing a book is just as good of an option as any, and maybe even better than most (for example doing “reality TV” or making a sex tape). However, there are a couple of perils. First of all, our bookstores become polluted with crap that it is difficult to believe was ever published in the first place (much like the plethora of asinine television shows & movies that should have never been greenlighted). Secondly, authors who achieve success right out of the gate are encouraged to write more, oftentimes with specious results. Sometimes it really is better to quit while you are ahead.

 

In the annals of one hit wonders I think most folks would agree that author Harper Lee ranks right up there with Soft Cell, Mark Hamill, John Adams, and Dexys Midnight Runners. I am tempted to say that it is a shame that she only wrote one novel, but when that one novel is the Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill A Mockingbird then there is really nothing left to prove and nowhere to go but downhill.

 

Though they really aren’t all that similar it occurs to me that Mockingbird and the previous novel we examined…Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine…have a few things in common. They both take place in the same general era…Mockingbird in the mid-1930’s in the midst of The Great Depression, Dandelion Wine in 1928 just before the Depression. Both are set in a sleepy small town, the kind that we wax nostalgic about in 21st century America. And both have children as the main protagonists, allowing the story to be told thru the eyes of a child and therefore necessitating an accessible writing style without sacrificing literary elegance. But the comparisons end there.

 

To Kill A Mockingbird is an unflinching look at racism in the early 20th century, and though it is at times uncomfortable (especially when observed thru the politically correct prism that has almost become the standard in modern times) there is such an easygoing innocence from the point-of-view of the narrator that the rough edges seem much more palatable.

 

The story is about the Finch family in Maycomb, Alabama. There is the narrator…9 year old Jean Louise, nicknamed Scout…her older brother Jem…and their widowed father Atticus, a wise, even-tempered lawyer with a strong sense of morality. Scout & Jem spend their days in school and their evenings & summertime playing and hanging out with a neighbor boy named Dill. Scout, Jem, & Dill become obsessed with a reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley who for many years has been the subject of rumors painting him as some kind of freaky monster and hasn’t been seen by anyone since he was a teenager. Meanwhile, Atticus takes on the case of Tom Robinson, a poor black man accused of raping his white female neighbor Mayella Ewell. Robinson’s trial is a major event in Maycomb, and it exposes the children to the racist outlook of a town that they had heretofore only known to be filled with friendly neighbors & schoolmates. Eventually the two storylines intersect, although if you want to know how you’ll just have to read the book.

 

To Kill A Mockingbird is an important book. I wouldn’t hesitate to place it in the mix with The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the works of Shakespeare & Dickens, and The Holy Bible as one of the most significant things ever written. That will sound like hyperbole only to those who have not had the pleasure of reading it. It embodies a time, a place, and an attitude that we still haven’t completely laid to rest. Yes we have made remarkable strides, but we cannot truthfully say that racism no longer exists. They may be fewer in number, but there are still people with an “us and them” outlook. The difference between now & then is that we are fully aware that it is wrong. To a certain extent the racism in Mockingbird is portrayed in such a matter-of-fact way that we can conclude that many folks back then didn’t realize how wrong they were. It was the way it was. There was a hierarchy and everyone had their place and played their proper role in society. Even the ethical hero of the book Atticus Finch employs a black housekeeper, something that we see today as a racial stereotype. When reading a story like this we are forced to confront our own views and one wonders how various people have been impacted as society has evolved over the past few decades.

 

I would be remiss if I did not mention the fantastic 1962 film based on the book and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Like most movies based on books there are some minor characters left out and substantial subplots that are shortchanged or eliminated, but overall it is a faithful adaptation and quality production.  As usual in these cases I strongly caution against skipping the book in favor of just watching the movie. The book is an almost breezy read, which is surprising given its gravitas. If you haven’t read it you really should. God knows it’s better than watching The Bachelor or anything starring a Kardashian.

 

 

 

Dandelion Wine

This is the first of several books by author Ray Bradbury that you will see here eventually (remember, I am way too undisciplined to give any kind of time frame or promise a schedule). I have to give a shout out to my friend The Owl for introducing me to Bradbury in college. I would love to be able to say that I am one of the many who enjoyed his stories from a young age, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. I vaguely recall a TV show called The Ray Bradbury Theater back in the 80’s, but at the time it didn’t seem like something that would frost my cupcake. I don’t think I developed good taste in much of anything…literature, food, music, movies…until I was a young adult. We lost Mr. Bradbury earlier this year, and I was struck by how profoundly his passing affected me. I wish I would have “gotten the memo” about his stuff when I was a kid, but I guess it is better to be late to the party than to miss it altogether. The great thing about authors (and I suppose any artist…actors, musicians, etc.) is that we can enjoy the fruits of their talent long after they themselves have left this mortal coil.

 

As the weather becomes blustery and we break out the fleece & turn on the furnaces, I want to turn back the clock just a little bit. I am not a fan of cold weather and think the only good things about autumn & winter are football, Christmas, and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Other than those few exceptions I would prefer a perpetual state of warmth & sunshine. At any rate, Dandelion Wine is Bradbury’s ode to summer.

 

Originally written as disparate short stories, they share enough common threads to be strung together into one congruent novel. The main characters are 12 year old Douglas Spaulding (based on Bradbury himself) and his 10 year old brother Tom. The setting is Green Town, IL, loosely based on Bradbury’s recollections of his boyhood hometown of Waukegan, IL (40 miles north of Chicago). Green Town has sort of a Mayberry feel to it, with just a tinge of mysticism & fantasy thrown into the mix. We are introduced to a variety of the boys’ family, neighbors, and townsfolk, but generally see things thru the eyes of the two youngsters. The summer depicted is 1928…a simpler, more bucolic time to be sure. The small town, the prism of childhood, the assumption of a more peaceful era…all combine to make this a fun, nostalgic, & easy read. The infinitesimal elements of what I suppose might pass as sci-fi or horror are non-intrusive, but enough to keep things interesting. Bradbury’s lyrical prose makes humble traditions of summertime…sitting on the front porch swing, eating ice cream, mowing grass, and enjoying Grandma’s cooking…seem monumentally important, which of course they are to a child. The boys are occasionally confronted with heavy issues like death, illness, fear, and the loss of a best friend to relocation, and Douglas is a deep thinker who waxes philosophical about life, but even the chapters that deal with these melancholy subjects retain a light tone. The stories are realistic enough to induce wistful remembrances of a bygone era, yet fantastical enough to sweep the reader away to the land of make believe.

 

I have always had a tendency to remember my own childhood as being far more idyllic than it likely was in reality, which is probably why I really like Dandelion Wine. Bradbury leans toward the sentimental, which is just fine by me. In our modern age of violence, callousness, and immorality it is nice to atleast pretend that it wasn’t always this way. Dandelion Wine may not belong in the same conversation as the greatest works of literature, and it probably isn’t even Bradbury’s best effort, but it is immensely enjoyable and a nice way to spend a couple of afternoons.