Finding Empowerment in To Kill a Mockingbird

 

131019015912-harper-lee-story-topWith the publication this July of Harper Lee’s lost novel Go Set a Watchman, I’ve found myself talking with both friends and strangers about Miss Lee and her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. These discussions often begin with a, “Did you hear?” People feel both excited and nervous. They want the new book to be as good as the first one, or at least not an embarrassment. A new novel from a writer happy to have only published one book, more than fifty years ago? Can it be?

I love To Kill a Mockingbird. This publishing buzz got me thinking about why this is so. The character Scout and I share a few key things: A parent who is a public defender, representing society’s ignored, crushed, and thrown away? Check. A childhood spent mostly outside, free to follow my senses and my curiosity? Check. In possession of one brave and compassionate older sibling? Check. Long, hot childhood summers filled with quick friendships, tree houses, and dares to travel beyond the fence? Check! Check! Check!

But mostly it is because of Scout herself, the story’s narrator. Harper Lee created her as a whole person with faults, uncertainty, and wonder. A woman remembering her childhood, with awe for the riches that childhood gave her, as well as for what that early life taught her about justice, equality, poverty, gender, and family. The girl is allowed her anger and her questions, questions that the adults in her life respect her enough to answer, as best they can.

Harper Lee wrote a novel in which a young girl is a complete human being. She struggles to embody those same values Go Girls! camp holds dear: honesty, courage, joy, pro-action, appreciation, and inclusiveness. And Lee does this not through sentimentality or condescension, a “through the mouths of babes” tale, but by allowing the main character of her novel to radically experience life and have it change her for the better. We witness the girl’s evolution into someone with a point-of-view. And this child, the protagonist of one of our Greatest American Novels, is a girl in elementary school.

When I read the book as a girl, I always wanted to live up to Scout’s standards, to be as compassionate as she becomes by the end of the novel. Scout is the girl I was, and the woman I still hope to be. Whatever this new manuscript is, it feels like I will get a chance to tell Scout and Harper Lee what I always meant to: “Thank you.”