first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was about the same age as the
protagonist’s big brother, Jem, and had a little sister who was the same age as
the narrator, Scout. We grew up in times of change – with relatives who still
thought that African Americans (of course, they called them something else), such as that "trouble-making" Dr. Martin Luther King, should be
happy they could attend separate schools and have their own drinking fountains.
I had a good friend named Ike who lived in a ramshackle settlement next to the rock quarry near our home. He was the only black kid in my grade, quiet, shy, but fully capable of winning fist-fights, which he determinedly avoided. He did poorly at school and could barely read even in the seventh grade – but was a natural athlete and in many ways my hero.
When I stumbled onto To Kill a Mockingbird one miserable summer at my grandparents’ house 500 miles away, I understood completely. My grandmother’d heard the book was liberal and would only put ideas into my young head. And that’s exactly what it did. Although my mother was from Atlanta, she encouraged my friendship with Ike. I told her about being offered a ride home from school by Mrs. Carpenter up the street. “Can Ike come, too?” I had asked. Mrs. Carpenter had glared at him, then begrudgingly consented. Only fearfully did Ike get into the car at my insistence. Mrs. Carpenter never again ever offered me a ride and somehow, I gradually quit having much to do with her two sons my age.
There were other parallels to the book and my life. My dad was a local pastor and I wanted to be like him – bold enough to stand up for those who needed a champion. Someone like Atticus Finch, the smalltown lawyer who is Jem and Scout’s dad. In To Kill a Mockingbird, he attempts to defend an innocent black man, Tom Robinson.
In the book, Jem and Scout watch the trial from the courtroom’s balcony colored section, feeling the pride of knowing how much their dad was loved by their community’s blacks for daring to defend Robinson. As a 12-year-old, I knew I preferred that balcony – not caring what the popular stand might be. I did not mind walking all the way home with Ike. Although their family was dirt-poor, Ike was a far richer person than Mrs. Carpenter.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a rare look at what it was like to grow up in the South – and mirrors much of what author Harper Lee experienced as a child with her childhood buddy, Truman Capote. In 1919, her father, a smalltown attorney, unsuccessfully defended two black men, who were later lynched. He never took another case, instead buying the local newspaper – where Lee learned there are other ways to fight injustice.
In 2006, British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one "every adult should read before they die." To date, it is Lee's only published novel. The title refers to the adage that it’s a crime to kill a mockingbird since it’s one of God’s colorful, beautiful creations -- and refers not only to Tom Robinson, but to a shadowy figure, Boo Radley, a mentally retarded man feared by other kids, who is befriended by Scout and repays her kindness is a dramatic way.
To Kill a Mockingbird inspired me as a young pre-teen.
It showed me who I could be.
~ Rob Kerby
Purchase "To Kill a Mockingbird" here.
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