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Wally Lamb on To Kill a Mockingbird

(Editor's Note: The following text is an excerpt from The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them, edited by Roxanne Coady and Joy Johannessen.)

To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee

I knew from the time I was eight that I wanted to be a teacher, but not that I wanted to be a writer. In third grade, my lowest marks were in reading ("Walter needs to check out more library books") and writing ("Walter needs to practice his penmanship and be less sloppy"). If you'd suggested to my teacher, prim Miss Comstock, that I'd grow up to be a novelist, she might have thrown back her head and guffawed.

My eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Cramer, took us outside to write about nature (which I liked) and made us memorize her favorite poems (which I didn't). Longfellow's "Evangeline," Joyce Kilmer's "Trees," Vachel Lindsay's "The Potato's Dance": none of these works spoke to me, and anyway, what kind of men had first names like Vachel and Joyce? At a schoolwide assembly, our class was made to mount the gymnasium stage and recite, in unison, "The Potato's Dance." I'd been tapped for a solo quatrain that required me to step to the front of the stage and speak the following lines, which I still remember at age fifty-five, possibly because of posttraumatic stress syndrome.

There was just one sweet potato.
He was golden-brown and slim:
The lady loved his figure.
She danced all night with him.

As I spoke, I could see the science teachers snickering at the rear of the gym. I forgave them immediately. I thought literature was kind of stupid, too.

Later that school year, President Kennedy got killed. Then Beatlemania happened. Then it was eighth-grade graduation. I was only half paying attention when Miss Higgins, the scary teacher at the microphone, called my name. I got off my folding chair and took the perp walk to the front of the auditorium. Miss Higgins handed me an envelope. On the outside, it said, "Julia Pease Award for Writing." Inside was a crisp ten-dollar bill. A writing award? For me? As I returned to my seat, Mrs. Cramer's wink implied that there had not been a mistake. But later that day at Ocean Beach Park, I spent all my prize money on Skee-Ball and mini-golf, just in case.

In high school, I read and wrote because I had to, not because I wanted to. In English, a book report was coming due. I was a poky reader who favored short books for these assignments, but I'd already reported on Orwell's Animal Farm and Steinbeck's The Red Pony. From my sister's nightstand, I grabbed the paperback she'd been yapping about, To Kill a Mockingbird. The cover had a Technicolor picture of Gregory Peck and some little girl in overalls. I opened the book and read the first sentence, "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." Three days later, I finished the book. A novel had never kidnapped me before. Until Mockingbird, I'd had no idea that literature could exert so strong a power.

Like its progenitor, Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and its big brother, Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is a first-person narrative in which conscience is tested and hypocrisy is skewered. There's neighborhood intrigue, a rape trial, the attempted murder of innocents, and laugh-out-loud comic relief. The narrator, a sadder but wiser adult, gives the floor early and often to the child's voice and viewpoint. The reader gets all this good stuff, plus Lee's sensual and evocative language. Listen to how she describes a Depression-era town in the Deep South.

Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

Pass me a sweat towel and a sweet tea, Miss Harper. It's summertime and I'm in Alabama.

In college, I fell in love with other fictions: Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Cather's My Ántonia, Dreiser's Sister Carrie. In grad school, it was the masters of the short story form who captured my heart: Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus. But like they say, there's something special about your first.

***

A native of Norwich, Connecticut, Wally Lamb is the bestselling author of two novels, She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, both New York Times Notable Books and selections of Oprah's Book Club. Among his many honors are the Pushcart Prize, the Connecticut Governor's Arts Award, and the Kenneth Johnson Memorial Book Award, which recognized I Know This Much Is True for its contribution to destigmatizing mental illness. Lamb taught high school and university students for twenty-five years, and for the past six years has served as volunteer facilitator of a writing workshop at a maximum-security women's prison in Niantic, Connecticut. From this program came Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters, an anthology of autobiographical essays by his inmate students, which he edited and introduced. He is currently at work on his third novel, The Hour I First Believed. He and his wife, Christine, are the parents of three sons, Jared, Justin, and Teddy.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Book That Changed My Life: 71... Used Hardcover $4.95
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  3. Animal Farm
    Used Mass Market $4.50
  4. The Red Pony (Penguin Great Books of... Used Mass Market $3.95
  5. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn...
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  6. The Catcher in the Rye
    Used Mass Market $3.50
  7. The Great Gatsby
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  8. My Antonia
    Used Trade Paper $2.50
  9. Sister Carrie (Penguin... Used Trade Paper $4.95
  10. She's Come Undone (Oprah's Book Club)
    Used Trade Paper $2.95
  11. I Know This Much Is True
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  12. Couldn't Keep It to Myself:...
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  13. The Book That Changed My Life: 71... Used Hardcover $4.95


Roxanne Coady is the author of The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them

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