If you walk into my living room, the first thing you’ll see is a huge print of the first edition cover of To Kill A Mockingbird hanging above my sofa. There have been plenty of books that have had an effect on me over the years, but To Kill A Mockingbird was the first to really speak to me.
Harper Lee’s one and only novel, published in 1960, shone a light on many issues of the time, including class, justice, and of course race. However, to ten year old me, who was handed an old 70’s copy of the book that my dad had somehow held onto since his own schooldays, what really struck home was Lee’s study of gender politics.
Growing up in a time where the heroines of my favourite books were super perky, ultra feminine girls who always got the boy of their dreams, Scout was a breath of fresh air.
Of course, at ten years old I didn’t know that gender politics or feminism were things that existed, but what I saw was a character that I could relate to fully for the first time in my short life. Jean Louise Finch, or Scout, as she prefers to be called, happily wears overalls rather than petticoats, and spends her days climbing trees and getting into scrapes with her older brother Jem, and friend Dill, who visits every summer. Perfectly happy in her own skin, she’s confused and frustrated by others’ attempts to make her act like a proper lady, especially her prim and proper aunt, Aunt Alexandra.
When I first read To Kill A Mockingbird, I was very similar to Scout in my nature. I frustrated my mother by never brushing my hair, was frequently told off in class for reading and not paying attention, and had the same issue with grownups, whose actions struck me as confusing and nonsensical. Growing up in a time where the heroines of my favourite books were super perky, ultra feminine girls who always got the boy of their dreams, Scout was a breath of fresh air.
Subsequent re-readings of the book as an adult revealed to me just how much Lee layered into the story, such as the sad, lonely life of Mayella Ewell, and the inherent racism inherited by everyone in Scout’s hometown of Maycomb. Every re-reading shows me something else new in what appears to be a simple, straight forward story. Harper Lee made every page count in the book, made every sentence push the story forward in a subtle yet deeply meaningful way. The result was a story brimming over with character and very clearly full of love for the art of storytelling.
Scout was kind yet quick tempered, self assured but thrown by the events she finds herself a part of. She’s one of the most human young girls I’ve ever come across in literature, and in her I found my first role model.
When the news broke of Harper Lee’s death on Friday 19th February, I found myself sitting under that huge framed poster and unexpectedly sobbing. At 89, Lee’s death was not unexpected, and social media was instantly full of love for her and her work, but her death hit me harder than I realised it would.
She created a book and character that spoke to me, as a child in 1996, that nothing else had managed before. Scout was kind yet quick tempered, self assured but thrown by the events she finds herself a part of. She’s one of the most human young girls I’ve ever come across in literature, and in her I found my first role model.
The loss of Harper Lee is a huge blow to her fans, but she left a wonderful legacy behind her. To Kill A Mockingbird perfectly illustrated her forward thinking, fair minded views, and helped shape the views of a generation. Rest in peace, Harper Lee, and thank you for writing one of the best books ever written. You don’t know how much it meant to me, and the thousands of other fans it has around the world.
Siobhan Harper is a freelance writer living in Birmingham UK. She strongly believes in figuring things out as you go along, but only because she's pathalogically disorganised. You can follow her adventures in writing at http://wingingitsiobhanharper.blogspot.co.uk/, or her thoughts on early mornings and dogs on Twitter at @Beatrix_Plotter.