Monday, July 12, 2010

My Harper Lee moment



By pure coincidence that even I don't fully believe, found myself reading To Kill a Mockingbird just days before I learned it was the book's 50th anniversary. I learned there was a discussion about the book at the Arlington Library. I finished the book hours with two hours to spare, and headed over there.

There was a group of about 20 people sitting in their auditorium. Most were about 50 or older. It was a literate crowd, with a few college professors, some senior citizen couples and some moms with kids in tow. The group was entirely white. There were cookies and sweet tea and lemonade on a table in the back, which was genteel gesture if I've ever seen one.

The discussion was interesting. There were quite a few southerners there, who shared stories about how the book wasn't sold in their hometowns or even discussed. One woman actually grew up in Harper Lee's hometown in Alabama. She said locals perform her play every year, and that the character "Dill" in the book was actually based on Truman Capote, who was Lee's neighbor, if you can believe it or not. It was very high-brow but not snobby. The librarian who led the discussion was a Mockingbird fanatic, and was a good moderator, if a little overly enthusiastic.

Towards the very end of the hour discussion, a face poked in through the heavy blue door. By the inch of face I could see, it was a black man or woman. For a few long minutes the face bobbed in and out in the hallway. I waved to them, and eventually a women in her forties slowly made her way into the room. She was about 5 feet tall, her back curved and her bottom enormous. Her butt seemed to wrap around her entire body. She looked sort of like a large round ball shoved into gray sweatpants. Her hair was tied into a half-dozen inch long braids that sprouted out of her hair like bunches of scallions. Her face was shy but kind. She looked most likely like one of the many homeless or low-income people who hung around the library.

The conversation continued for a while, and eventually someone asked if the new entrant wanted to say anything about the book. I held my breath. While I was happy she was included into the conversation, I doubted that she had read the book. I didn't want us to embarrass her by having her confess her ignorance to a bunch of bespectacled middle- and upper-middle class whites.

She began speaking, so quietly we had to lean in to hear her."I remember there was a character in the book that protected the children...."

"Boo Radley," the librarian added helpfully.

"Yes, Boo. I remember that Boo was a real strange loner, but that he protected the kids. No one understood him, but he was a hero. A hero that nobody expected."

I immediately felt like a jackass for judging this woman. But I also very much enjoyed her comment. Because she was very much like Boo Radley herself. An odd person that taught other people a lesson. So thank you, mystery woman.