Natal Streams

(NOTE: This essay is adapted from remarks I made on September 25, 2010, as part of the Seattle Public Library’s celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird on the 50th anniversary of its publication.)

 

Thank you all for coming today. I have a strong suspicion that every person in this auditorium could take a turn up here at the podium and speak eloquently about this book and their relationship to it. But, for better or worse, I’m the person who gets to make that attempt, so I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to Chris Higashi for inviting my participation at this event. It would be an honor to speak about this book any day of the week, so it’s a special honor to have an opportunity to speak about this book on the 50th anniversary of its publication.

I’d like to give Chris and the library staff an extra round of applause for making this happen, and I’d also like us to acknowledge our book-selling friends from Elliott Bay Books who are supplying the books for this event.

 

So, it’s my job to launch this birthday party by talking about the significance of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in my personal and professional life.

Before I do that, however, I have to talk about two things:

ONE: the olfactory hypothesis for salmon homing, as first presented by Hasler and Wisby in 1951, also known as the “imprinting hypothesis”, and

TWO: my mother.

 

I grew up in the landlocked Midwest. When my father took me fishing it was usually to small man-made lakes stocked with perch, catfish, and the suspiciously-named fish known as crappie. Dad killed and cleaned these fish; my mother dredged them through a secret concoction of peppery flour and savory herbs, fried them up, and served them alongside her famous corn fritters, big as tennis balls and doused with generous swaths of Mrs. Butterworth’s.

I knew about other water-dwelling creatures, the imports, the ones that only ended up on our dinner plates if we went out to a fancy restaurant – trout, for example, that once swam the wild rivers of Colorado, or the famously exotic half of a “surf’n’turf” partnership, lobster, that came all the way from off the seacoast off Maine, and that I got to eat once a year, on my birthday, as a special treat.

But growing up, I knew nothing of our great Pacific Northwest wonder: the salmon.

 

It was only after I moved to Seattle in 1979 to go to graduate school that I began to hear about the marvelous process whereby salmon return to the waters in which they were spawned to reproduce and complete their life cycle – their unerring ability to accurately locate their natal streams.

There are various hypotheses surrounding this phenomenon – in preparing these remarks I learned that speculation about the use of olfactory cues for salmon homing dates back to the early 19th century – but don’t worry, I’m not going to turn this into a debate of those hypotheses.

The point I want to make is this: it was learning about the concept of imprintation in salmon, however it occurs, that helped me understand more completely the nature of my relationship to books and reading: I too was imprinted, not at birth but at a very young age, at a specific moment in time, and through a process that cannot be pinned to any one sensory factor:

When I was first learning how to read – this would have been around the time TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was published – my mother taught me the right way to open a book.

 

For the benefit of the young people in the audience today for whom this might be an unfamiliar concept, let me explain.

 

In my childhood, the word book meant hardbound book, and the process by which books were bound was different than it is today. I don’t know how, although I’ve always meant to find out. But the end result was that newborn books were as fragile as fledglings. Learning to read came with a grave responsibility to the physical body of a book.

When my mother believed I was ready to learn this lesson, she sat me down and, with great seriousness, proceeded to show me how to make a book’s acquaintance. Significantly, she chose to do this not with one of my books, but one of hers.

“You have to be very, very careful when opening a book for the first time, Stephanie,” I can imagine her saying on that occasion. “Otherwise you can break its back.”

Break its back?! I was horrified. I could tell from my mother’s tone that this was a calamity on par with being struck by lightning, swept up in a tornado, or incinerated in an atomic blast. (There was much conversation in those days between my father and our next door neighbor, Mr. Helmsdorfer, about going in together on the cost of a prefabricated, mail-order bomb shelter from Sears & Roebuck.)

 

I can still see my mother’s hands – they were small like mine, but differently shaped, for genetics endowed me with my father’s physicality.

With slow-moving solemnity and care, my mother opened the book to the approximate mid-point and then – as her left hand held the book steady, her right hand began smoothing down the spine from top to bottom. This process was repeated again and again as she moved back and forth through the book, forward and backward, a few pages at a time.

In this painstaking and infinitely patient way, she gradually arrived at the furthermost boundaries of the book – sweeping her hands across the final pages, and then the opening ones – having thus eased the entire book into a suppleness that would allow it to be read without harm.

 

I brought my mother’s copy of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with me today to show the result of this process. When care of this type is bestowed on a book, there’s a marvelous equanimity to the pages in relationship to the spine.

You see? The book doesn’t fall open to any particular place; the pages present a unified front; they all have something to offer; there are no favorites here.

My mother had a vehement disdain for people who manhandled a book in any way, whether is was to set a coffee cup down on its cover, leave it lying face down, splayed open, or dog-ear a favorite passage. Over time she developed an iron-clad policy of not loaning books to friends, since none of them, not a single one, shared her reverence for the body as well as the soul of a book.

The experience of holding a cloth-and-paper book in my hands is something I have always loved, and it is this early imprinting that makes me suspect that I will never embrace a Kindle or its facsimiles for all their convenience.

 

In showing me the right way to open a book, my mother was of course imprinting upon me something far deeper and more profound. She was sharing with me in a tangible way – one a five-year-old child could understand – her regard for the written word and for the place books and reading had in her own life, for to my mother – an only child who grew up in a largely loveless home – books were everything. They were, in a very real way and throughout her entire life, her best friends.

It is true that, as a child of the Depression, a contemporary of Scout Finch, one who grew up accustomed to material deprivations, my mother showed the same mindful care for all her possessions – and over the course of her life she acquired many. The reverence she displayed for her beautiful things – as if they were sacraments – was in great part what inspired my fascination with human attachment to objects, preoccupations that made their way into my first novel.

But my mother did not choose to share with me the right way to care for a pair of shoes, a silver tea set, or a string of pearls.

It was through a book that she chose to teach this lesson: that mindful attention to a thing makes it holy.

 

Now we all know that, just as not every person we encounter in our lives becomes an intimate, beloved friend, not every book we read imprints upon us. But we’re here today to celebrate one such a book, and I’d like to share a few stories that describe the many ways this book has imprinted upon me – a process that did not occur solely as a result of my relationship to it as a reader.

 

My mother read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD before I did, of course. This copy likely came to her through the mail, as a featured selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. She would have read it right away; and ever after she referred to it as “a beautiful story.”

She informed me that I would better understand it when I was a bit older and would be allowed to read it then.

But before that time came, we had another discussion surrounding TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. This would have taken place when its popularity caused it to start appearing on required reading lists in public school curriculums, and heated controversies began erupting at PTA meetings all over Lincoln, Nebraska, as well as in other parts of the country.

My mother told me that, incomprehensibly, there were people who found this book obscene and were trying to ban it. There were even places where people tore out its pages and burned it, LIKE THE NAZIS! my mother added with undisguised fury. If breaking a book’s back was a punishable offense, then burning it was surely a mortal sin.

This sin had a special name, I learned: it was called censorship.

Words like obscene, banned, censorship were new to me, as was the fact that this frail vessel, a mere book, could incite such vehement, destructive emotion in adults, who were supposed to be above such things.

My interest in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was piqued. What in it could possibly be the cause of such strong dissent among grownups?

 

I wish I could say that, when I read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for the first time in 7th grade English class the experience changed my life, but it would take the accumulation of many more readings over the course of many years for that to happen. I do remember feeling very proud to be attending a school where censors and book-burners did not hold sway. I also was greatly impressed by two truths that the book imparted:

  1. Fictional characters named Stephanie are always old maids and usually bitter, and
  2. A story – a big, important, censorship-inciting story – could be told in the voice a child. More than that, a girl child.

 

My first reading would have also introduced me to chiffarobe, amanuensis, morphodite, catawba worms, kudzu, chinaberries, aberrations, entailment, trousseau, whore-lady, philippic, morphine, habiliments, incestuous, Klan, Ku Klux, sexual intercourse, contraband, rape, collards, radical, and the word that gets Jem and Scout into so much trouble and that their father Atticus goes to great length to explain.

I was not acquainted with that word – my parents referred to Negroes as “colored people” – and I knew I would never be among those who used it, those who treated colored people as Bob Ewell did. I was exempt from such evil. I would never be a racist.

 

One day when my mother found me looking at the photo album of my parents’ wedding – something I loved to do – she peered over my shoulder and causally remarked that her grandfather gave her away because her own father had been banned from the service.

“Why?” I asked.

“He threatened your dad. There was a restraining order against him.”

“Why?” I asked again.

Mom shrugged, took a sip of her martini, and then uttered the most shocking words I ever heard her say. “My father hated your dad. He used to call him a nigger.”

And it was in that moment that I realized that my people, my own flesh and blood, were not exempt from shame. I understood that I came from racist stock. I wasn’t just the heroine of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, tomboyish, innocent Scout, with whom I had always felt such kinship; I was Bob Ewell too, and all his kind.

 

I read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD aloud last spring to my children. My younger son Sam, a 6th grader at the time, was required by his Language Arts teacher to log twenty minutes of reading (or being read-to) time every day. I foisted TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD upon him for purely selfish reasons: I am untrained as a novelist and derive my ongoing education from reading and re-reading the kind of books that I hope to write.

My older son Noah had already read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD as a 7th grader, and initially demonstrated his disdain for being part of anything so babyish as being read to by sequestering himself in his room; but as we got further into the story, he started bringing his high school homework into the living room.

I explained to my sons, as my mother explained to me, that this book had great significance for many reasons, not the least of which was that it had been banned.

What do you mean? they asked.

Didn’t you talk about this at school? I asked Noah.

He shook his head. No.

Well, I explained, some people believed – maybe even still believe – that it shouldn’t be taught to young people. That it’s inappropriate. You know, like R-rated movies.

We watch R-rated movies, they pointed out.

That’s true, I admitted, vowing once again to keep a tighter control on my childrens’ movie-viewing habits.

The point is, I went on, when this book came out, there were things in it that many people were deeply disturbed by, offended by, even angered by.

More blank looks. Like what? they asked.

I would like to meet Miss Harper Lee – if only to share this story with her: the fact that, fifty years after her book was published, my sons cannot imagine a world in which it would be banned.

 

I was brought to tears in several places as I read – most notably at the end of Chapter Eleven, when, after learning the truth about his neighbor Mrs. Dubose and hearing his father describe her as “the bravest person I ever knew,” Jem opens the candy box that she has left him after her death:

“Inside, surrounded by wads of damp cotton, was a white, waxy, perfect camellia. It was a Snow-on-the-Mountain.”

At that moment I realized that my relationship to this book had come full circle. When Jem opened that box, I opened, again, the book that my mother used to teach me that early lesson: this book, which has come to represent everything that I hold dear about books and writing and reading, and which has imprinted on me with the same mysterious powerful force as that which allows the salmon to return to their natal streams.

 

The books that we truly love are those that have escaped the confines of their physical selves. They are no longer contained by fragile bindings; they are no longer vulnerable to the careless or even destructive actions of humankind, or the erosive force of time. They have permeated our identities in ways that go far beyond the reading experience.

These books are the ones we carry with us throughout our lives, not as solid objects but – like the people we love – as memory, as the union of our imagination and personal experience with the story told. These books accompany us, but in a way that keeps them safe from harm: they have been inscribed upon our hearts.

 

I do not believe that Miss Lee set out to write a book about great themes. She did not aim to change the world. Her aim was simply to tell a story, plainly, truthfully, one that bespoke of her love for the people and the place she knew so well. From that straightforward and humble intention grew the great profound story we all know, one that has resonated through all our lives in countless ways.

That is a lesson for any writer indeed, one I hold fast.

 

I want to close with a quote by another Southern writer, Ellen Gilchrist, from her book FALLING THROUGH SPACE; these words have served to guide me throughout my writing life and I try to hold them close:

“How often I have tried to tell writing students that the first thing a writer must do is love the reader and wish the reader well. The writer must trust the reader to be at least as intelligent as he is. Only in such well wishing and trust, only when the writer feels he is writing a letter to a good friend, only then will the magic happen.”

 

Miss Harper Nelle Lee wrote such a letter to all of us fifty years ago.

 

And aren’t all our lives so much the richer for it?