I know I read this in middle school, must have. I remember thinking about what a mockingbird must sound like, and also feeling a little spooked thinking about Boo Radley hiding behind Scout’s bedroom door. I must have taken a quiz or test or wrote an essay, fumbling for some kind of understanding of the bird and the Boo. And that’s it. It didn’t stick to me. It just faded away along with many of the stories from dogged-up sun-faded anthologies sitting on windowsills. (Poe was more to my liking, since I’m confessing.)
Read an article recently that mentioned Harper Lee’s most famous story and it sparked interest so I sat down and watched the movie for the first time. That’s right. I have never seen Gregory Peck channel Atticus Finch until a few days ago. Guess I thought that since I’d read the book there was no reason to go there, never had much interest in Peck as an actor or black and white films in general. The brief opening credits began to roll, a picture of a cigar box filled with childhood treasures and so help me I could smell that box and I began to weep. And it’s happening again as I write this. Childhood, it’s all there. The children appeared and acted as children do but spoke in most adult ways. It was an odd mixture and we were asked to suspend our disbelief that children of a widowed lawyer could be sneaky, have wonderful play, but speak in grown-up ways. I was surprised (why?) that Atticus had a colored servant (housekeeper). Where was that in the book? I thought Atticus was more progressive than that; wow, my memory is bad. Then, the revelation that a colored man raped a white woman. Where was that in the book? Wow, my memory is bad. The n-word was used in the film and I guess I read it but didn’t flinch? It was used on the street and by some older relatives, so it wasn’t a shock. (Unless I was surprised at the use of the word in this book and I just don’t remember?) I was most interested in the courtroom scene, watching the witnesses come and falsely accuse Tom of a terrible crime, the African American people in the balcony, Whites on the main floor. Judge, prosecution, defense, witness chair, none of this was like Law & Order SVU but it was still compelling. How is it that I knew Atticus made a good case but Tom would still be condemned? Was it from memory or just my jaded heart? I did not remember Tom allegedly attempting to run from the cops and getting shot instead of being jailed. Why did I not remember? And why do I care so much now that this shit is still going in full color with only a 10-second delay from camera phone to internet?
The film goes on and I was surprised that the white man came to harm or possibly murder Atticus’ children. Where was that in the book? I was surprised that Sheriff Heck Tate allowed the white man’s death during the attack to be chalked up to “he fell on his knife” as justice for the lies he and his daughter told about Tom that led to his death. Heck was a man trying to do a decent thing, and I believe his character and his actions were largely ignored. There are more heroes in the story can be counted and should all be on one line, they’re all first place. Sorry Mr. Peck, but at least you won the Oscar.
Another confession: I did not know that Boo Radley was played by Robert Duvall and it was his very first role. They could have given it to any actor, but I think he did a fine job being a frightened man coming out of his safe place to rescue Atticus’ children.
So childhood and play and innocence are huge in this story. It’s no wonder I largely buried it somewhere. Found it difficult to watch two children who love and care for and stick up for each other; where a little girl’s voice mattered and might have made a difference. We used to play like that once; we had good times; I remember those more than this book. Maybe that’s what I like best about the end of this essay.