July 23, 2015

The Melville Haz Book Club 3: The world isn’t so bad, I think


Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) in the courtroom.

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) in the courtroom.

This is the third installment of a series of letters between Hazlitt’s Scaachi Koul and Melville House’s Alex Shephard about classic novels they may or may not have read growing up. The first letters in the series are devoted to To Kill A Mockingbird. You can read Scaachi’s first letter here; the second letter, from Alex, is here. And you can read the response to this letter here

Hello American Alex,

Funny you bring up A Separate Peace—that was another book Calgary’s school board has us read repeatedly, and that was supposedly about morality and loss of innocence or whatever, but which, every time I read it, would have me looking around at my classmates and muttering, “Like, they’re totally gay for each other, right?” In my defence, I was 14 and it was just really exciting to read some school-sanctioned gay love in class. But maybe it’s just another example of me missing the point.

I don’t think my parents ever read To Kill A Mockingbird either. I mean, in their defence (yes, that is how you spell that word), they’re Indian immigrants who didn’t grow up with the same literature you or I did. But I think to a bigger extent, they don’t like reading about the institutional racism they already know firsthand. Certainly not to the same degree, but pressing on that same old bruise, sometimes you just don’t want to deal with it. They were worried about assimilating, not making a fuss.

I’d ask some of my old chums if they read the book but, unlike you, I am not very popular.

To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960, and was about rape, racism, and the American South. There’s no way to write that book at that time while also putting a black character front and centre. There had to be some creative massaging, some way to get people to pick up the book and read it and continue reading it and leave feeling—somehow at the same time—sickened and complicit and upset and hopeful and warm. Scout lets you do that. Scout is recounting her time as a child with only slight detachment from the feelings she felt then, and yes, the book does end up being more about how she and Jem realized that the world was unfair. Tom Robinson is found guilty, Trayvon Martin is shot in the chest, black teenagers can’t go to a pool in McKinney without the cops throwing them around. These stories, even now, are far more palatable if presented by a little girl wearing overalls and trying to beat the shit out of her classmates.

But, is that okay? It’s not the ’60s anymore. Does this book hold the same weight with a one-dimensional black victim? How many of Tom’s words do we get to read? How much time do we actually spend talking about racism versus, say, class, which comes up repeatedly in the book? Am I thinking about this too hard? Maybe we should have found a middle-schooler to read the book and see if it packed a punch. Or maybe I’m thinking too much and asking too much.

It may, from now on, be impossible to read To Kill A Mockingbird without thinking about Go Set A Watchman and more pressingly, the response to Go Set A Watchman. But something about the fury over Atticus becoming a miserable old racist feels off to me—that’s the wrong thing to consider. Who cares about what became of Atticus? TKAMB was never really about him, or at least, I barely considered him except for whatever underpant-feelings I was having for him. I always considered that the book was actually about Scout, about finding out what the world can do, about what’s unfair, about what’s horrifying, about who you can trust, about who you can’t. GSAW, for whatever it may be, is still technically Scout’s story.

Here’s the other thing my brain glossed across completely in the decade or so since my last reading: Mayella Ewell’s home-life. I always left the book thinking that Mayella was heartless, maybe a drunk, made up a story about poor Tom and sent him away merely because he rejected her. I forgot about how her dad is an alcoholic and leaves her to care for her siblings, how she collects change to send them for ice cream. Mayella feels so small, she gets her back up and thinks Atticus is insulting her when he calls her “Miss Mayella.” And her face is covered in bruises. I forgot all of this. I remembered her as unreliable, selfish, a racist who tried to get a man put away for nothing.

But that too, I suppose, is a child’s understanding of Mayella’s small life, the one her father made close in on her, the abuse he surely made her the target of, the lie he wanted to tell. How many books did I get wrong as a kid because I didn’t understand enough about how the world worked? Rereading it, I was angry at myself, as if I should have had a more sophisticated appreciation for Mayella’s situation. Me, the notorious 12-year-old abuse-apologist.

Boo, though, I don’t know what Boo’s supposed to be, even now. I think, yes, he’s a redemptive character, someone to remind you at the end of the book that there is good, somewhere, even if the world is generally unfair. But maybe it’s also a reminder that you shouldn’t fear the unknown just because it’s unknown. Boo helps the kids in the dark, scaring them even further in the process, but saves them, too.

The world isn’t so bad, I don’t think.


Scaachi Koul is the managing editor of Hazlitt. Her debut collection of essays, The Pursuit of Misery, is forthcoming spring 2017 (Doubleday Canada).