After I’d spent a few days inside Winona’s head I wondered how To Kill a Mocking-Bird would stand up to a re-reading. The links and differences between A Thousand Moons and To Kill a Mocking-Bird jumped out at me as I wondered what to read to follow Sebastian Barry’s work. Both books concern racial prejudice and rape in the South of the United States. Harper Lee’s Pullitzer prize winner was published sixty years ago, based on events which occurred about eighty years after the setting for A Thousand Moons. Both are told in the first person, by a female protagonist, but Scout is younger by ten years in age than Winona, and by more than that in experience.
I hadn’t read To Kill a Mocking Bird for many years, although I read Go Set a Watchman soon after it was published. (I’ve learned that this book, though set in its future, was the first version of To Kill a Mocking-Bird.) What did I find different in the experience of re-reading To Kill a Mocking-Bird, written in the 1950s by a woman from Alabama, and that of reading A Thousand Moons written in the 2020s by an Irishman?
I thought I remembered To Kill a Mocking-Bird, but I had forgotten so much: the detailed description of life in a small southern town, Miss Maudie who lived over the road, Dill who came for the summer holidays, the flowers in the gardens, the food they ate. What I remembered was emotion – and that came flooding back.
Everything is told through Scout’s perceptions, as she observes adults behaving in ways she doesn’t always understand. The reader is inside Scout’s thoughts as she grasps occasionally comprehensible phrases in adult discourse, trying to piece together what is happening, like someone watching a film in a foreign language without subtitles. Harper Lee gives her audience a stereoscopic vision of what is happening, Scout’s view, and the reader’s own.
Harper Lee gives her younger protagonist less insight into other characters’ motives than Sebastian Barry gives Winona; there is acceptance that Scout cannot fully understand Calpurnia’s viewpoint. To Kill a Mocking-Bird has more incident, less reflection and less internal dialogue than A Thousand Moons, but both build the tension of approaching tragedy in ways I find compelling.
In 2021 I still find To Kill a Mocking-Bird a wonderful, compelling, heart-breaking story, about trying to change things and learning to live with what can’t be changed as fast, as far as one might like. And about learning to live in some-one else’s shoes, as Atticus requires of his children.
This time I shan’t leave it so long before I reread it.