Saturday, May 25, 2013

Of mockingbirds and readers

MUCH-LOVED books are many things to their readers.

Take Harper Lee’s 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

It’s been praised as a coming-of-age tale. When I first read it in 1979, the friendship that developed between childhood friends Scout, Jem and Dill and their enigmatic neighbor, Boo, made me cry—and this had nothing to do with the book review my teacher, Madam Rebecca Montaño, made us write after weeks of critical reading of the novel, chapter by chapter.

Prodded by our English teacher, our 13-year-old minds became aware of the fate of mockingbirds in Lee’s tale set in the American South during the Great Depression. Yet, perhaps because we were so engaged with the narrator, six-year-old Scout, my classmates and I were only vaguely aware of the trial of a Negro for the rape of a white girl.

The themes of sexual taboos, discrimination and injustice were then mere flashes of lightning briefly illuminating a darkening sky. It was only in college that I absorbed the underside of Lee’s genial, sleepy town of Maycomb.

My rereading of the novel during the late 1980s was helped a lot by that era’s salvaging, hamletting and purging. Somewhere in the coils of English contorted by martial law violence and ideologies were Lee’s mockingbirds. When their father, Atticus Finch, gives Scout and Jem their first air rifles for Christmas, he cautions them: “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

The Finches’ neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, makes it less cryptic for the children: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

It’s not just generations that separate my sons from me. I realize this after I unearthed my copy of Lee’s novel for my younger son’s grade 9 Reading assignment.

This 1973 Penguin edition was reprinted by a Quezon City publisher “under the authority of Presidential Decree No. 285.” The same law prohibits exporting the book from the country. The warning is printed at the back of my copy’s flyleaf, on which my 13-year-old self has written: “Personal property… Private Property! no dog ears please!”

Then, I didn’t see the irony of juxtaposing my prickly sense of ownership rights with a regime’s curtailment of information, its rape of human rights. While turning the book’s yellowed pages, I wonder how my younger son will find Maycomb. Will he be entertained by the quirkiness of a Southern Gothic morality tale, and miss the real haunting that continues to this day?

For this reader, Lee’s tale survives the decades better in spirit than in physical form. A staple in classrooms and libraries, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has something for everyone: children, parents, teachers, lawyers, neighbors, citizens.

Rereading it on my 47th year, I belatedly realize it is also a book for readers. Love for the printed word is in nearly every critical scene. When Dill of Meridian first makes his appearance to Scout and Jem in Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch, he introduces himself as, “I’m Charles Baker Harris… I can read.”

It’s a declaration that hardly impresses Jem on account of his sister’s feat: “Scout yonder’s been reading ever since she was born…”

Reading may not solve some problems, but it may prevent creating others. When Atticus keeps watch over the imprisoned Tom Robinson, the Negro accused of rape, he brings a chair, a light bulb with an extension cord, and a book. (In his youth, Atticus was nicknamed “Ol One-shot”.) So armed, the “deadest shot” in Maycomb faces the mob thirsting for a lynching.

That reading so imbues the novel without overpowering it testifies to Lee’s craft. As Scout declares after an epic struggle with a grade one teacher who demands Scout stops reading with her father so she can “properly” learn to read in class: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 26, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

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