I’ve been buried in revisions all summer for my new novel with a deadline of today. I’m happy to report that the deadline was met and my new novel—still not firm on a title yet—will be released in September 2013 by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. So, I had to dig around in my old essays. I found this one written in the summer of 2009. I hope the readers enjoy.
"To Kill A Mockingbird" is the kind of novel that all good southern writers read before they take on their own long efforts. It’s one of the books in the southern writers’ bible. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. So, a writer born as about as deep in the south as one can get, Macon Georgia, should have read this book, right? After all she has invented a world of characters using folklore, emotion, and downright southern history that inhabited her childhood. Of course she’s read the book. Wrong. I’m ashamed to say I never read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird until the summer of 2009. I thought I had. I bragged I had read it, but the truth is I would have gone along in my lie, living a life of bliss, if not for leading a book club in the reading of this novel.
When several of the members asked what my feelings were on the book, I racked my brain for one original thought on the content, a thought not connected to the movie. After all I made an A on the paper I wrote in high school. My only answer could be that I was so young when I read it. How in the world was I expected to remember such a thing? I mean how many books do you think I’ve read since high school?
Of course I would read the book again. I needed to refresh my memory. I had a copy on my shelves gathering dust. I decided to lead the group in sections. We would discuss several chapters at a time. Our first assignment was chapters 1-7. Being the professional writer—with only a tiny affliction of OCD—I did my background research on the author, Harper Lee.
Up until that point, I had believed Harper Lee was dead. I'm not sure why I thought this other than she didn't get mentioned much at the time. That's what I got for thinking. My first hit in my internet search took me to an Oprah magazine, where I found an article Harper Lee had written about reading and writing real letters. She was alive and well. That should have been a sign that something in my memory stunk to the high heavens. If I didn’t know Harper Lee was still alive and I live right next door here in Georgia, how could I have read the book? How indeed?
I read the first seven chapters expecting to jog a memory. Instead I was taken into another world, a world much older than the south I remembered, but similar in so many ways. The voice was familiar like listening to my great aunt telling a story in her big living room, sipping ice tea from a jelly jar or lazy evenings, when I was kid, sitting in the front yard of my grandmother’s house, watching the sky come alive with orange, red, and yellow. It was so hot—most houses didn’t have air conditioning back then—the cooler evening air was welcomed, even to a young girl with tons of energy.
When I read about Maudie, the lady who lived across the street from Scout in Maycomb, Alabama, I knew I’d never read this book. How could I forget such dialogue?
“Miss Maudie stopped rocking, and her voice hardened. ‘You are too young to understand it,’ she said, “but sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of—oh, of your father.’”
For some reason I pictured a cliff note book thrown on the bed I slept in as a teenager. I didn’t read cliff notes! Not me, a writer to the bottom of my soul. Did I?
I drowned myself in the rhythm of Harper Lee’s language as if I might die that night and never know the end to such a beautifully written book. Maybe somehow things would change and Tom Robinson wouldn’t die before he had a chance to find justice. Movies never go along with the books anyway, right?
When I finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird, I was fifty years old, the same age as Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem’s famously old father. What I gained from reading this book as a mature adult—without some English teacher forcing me—is history and a reminder of a setting nearly extinct now. Ms. Lee tamed my beloved south with all its beauty and flaws if only for two-hundred and eight-one pages.
What did the women in the book club think of a leader who claimed to know a book she never read? Well, I never told them. When they read this, my guilty conscious will be cleared. And like one of my dear friends always says, “I love my friends deeply, warts and all,”
The lessons in Harper Lee’s writing are timeless, and I am reminded she was a one book author, but my gosh, people, look at the book! What did I learn from my experience? I learned that with older characters like Atticus and me we have to be given some allowance on our memories, and we're never too old to fall in love with a book.
Since I wrote this essay, I have read To Kill A Mockingbird once a year. When I’m asked what book most influenced me, I say To Kill A Mockingbird. I do leave off the part about not reading this book until I was fifty.
Ann Hite’s debut novel, Ghost On Black Mountain, not only became a Townsend Prize Finalist in 2012 but won Georgia Author of the Year 2012. Her second Black Mountain novel will be released by Gallery Books September 2013. Ann lives in Smyrna Georgia just a little north of Atlanta. www.annhite.com