Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Who's Looking at Boo?

A few years ago my husband gave me the fourth best gift he'd ever given me— a signed copy of my favorite book. I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't read To Kill a Mockingbird until I was an adult. It wasn't part of my high school English teacher's reading list, and back then, I rarely read anything I didn't have to, except The Flame and the Flower.

Now in our 30 years together, my husband has given me hundreds of gifts. The first best thing was a dog I didn't even ask for, but who ended up loving me every single day for or 13 years,  even on those days when I had nothing much going for me.  The next two are my children, of course. But the book, well, when I opened this 35th anniversary edition, I thought, well, this is nice. My paperback copy was looking a little dogeared. And then I cracked open the spine, pulling in the smell of it, like new ink, smoothing my fingers over the pages. It wasn't until I reached the title page that I looked up at him, tears in my eyes, thinking this man really does understand me, thankful none of my tears dripped across the name carefully penned in black in on the title page. Harper Lee had held this very copy in her own hands, the same hands that had written a simple story that begins with a broken elbow and ends with all of us questioning if we really can ever love our neighbors as ourselves.

(Bird lover that I am, I admit that I have never quite understood why she chose a mockingbird. The Mockingbirds of my memory, though they could sing, used to fly up and down across the yard, pecking at my Irish Setter's backside because he'd gotten too close to their nest.)

I imagine I'm no different from scores of other writers from the South when I say the book changed me. I've read it now at least six times, the last time just this past winter, and as a writer in Southern Living said in July, each time I read it, I find something new.  I read it for story and for structure, for character and plot. I read it to read between the lines about Truman Capote's friendship with Harper Lee. I read it to see  — as my friend the writer Doris Betts told me once good writers needed to do —how Harper Lee kills her darlings. How she finds the extraordinary in the ordinary days of rural Alabama. And I read it to see if we have learned anything from the mistakes made by those good folks in Maycomb in the 1930s, which wasn't so much unlike my own home town in 1960. Or later.

TKaM turned 50 in July, and thousands of fans  made pilgrimages to Monroeville, Ala., to mark the event, with parades and walking tours, readings and recitations. They talked to Katie Couric and read essays on NPR. But nowhere in sight is the reclusive Nell Lee.

I used to want to make my own pilgrimage to Monroeville, just to see if I might catch a glimpse of her as she fed the ducks or picked up her mail at the post office, as if just catching sight of her might shed a little writerly magic over me. I imagined standing on the sidewalk outside her house and being invited up onto her porch for some iced tea, to talk about our similarities growing up in a small town, both with a father who is respected, if not beloved by that town. I want to know who the model was for Boo Radley (my town had Lucretia). About what she's reading and what she is working on now. I want to talk about writing and why some stories really do make a difference.

Sometimes I'm asked the question: Are you still writing? Which feels like Are you still breathing? I would never ask Nell Lee that question, because even if she is not writing things DOWN, she is writing, still. In her head. I hope always to be the same.

In my daydream I imagine her inviting me in to take a peek under her chenille-covered bed where I imagine she keeps her manuscripts, the ones she won't let anybody publish until she's dead, because she's had enough of folks making such a fuss over first one. Aren't we all convinced that she has hidden the next great American novel away?

In my hunger to hear more of her voice, I read the few essays she wrote, all in the three years after TKaM was published. But now I read her silence.

What irony, that Nell herself has become her beloved Boo, walk by her house,  leave notes in her mailbox,  hoping they'll be the ones with the magic words that will make her her come out.