Friday, December 16, 2011

Is Every Story a Quest? Yes! Especially Coming-of-Age Stories

Like Noah Zarc, the adolescents in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem and Scout Finch, set out to right wrongs and uncover the truth. Noah acts in behalf of his mother and father. Jem and Scout try to learn the truth about their monstrous neighbor, Mr. Arthur Boo Radley. For several summers, lost little Dill, hungry for family and love, joins them. Dill's imagination, full of the books he’s read, enriches the fancies of the Finch children, and the trio tell each other stories about the mysterious, reclusive neighbor, rumored to have stabbed his own father.

Almost tangentially, at least for the children, is Tom Robinson’s story. He’s been unjustly and falsely accused of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow South. The children do not yet know what all the adults know: Tom Robinson’s life is in jeopardy. He could become the victim of a lynch mob before the trial begins, and if he comes to trial, he will most certainly be convicted by a white jury. The judge in Maycomb County asks Atticus Finch, the loving father every child deserves and brilliant lawyer every defendant needs, to defend Tom, and Atticus agrees because it is his duty to stand for truth and justice. Atticus believes Tom is innocent and presents a vigorous defense, one that rips away his own children’s innocence, exposing them to the true monsters in their community.

Children at school repeat what they have heard at home, calling Scout names and inciting her to fight back for her father’s honor. Mrs. Dubose, a neighbor down the street, insults both children until finally the older, more reserved Jem chops down her beloved camellias, an iconic Alabama flower grown in a state of racial divide and oppression. In striking down those camellias, Jem assaults his own heritage as a Southerner. He cuts down the monster to which his journey brought him. He knows at last that racism is hatred, and racism thrives in the heart of his community.

Boo Radley, as the children learn, is not a monster at all. He is a victim of righteous convictions and intolerance, the persecutor his own father. Boo is also the children’s savior. He risks his life to defend Jem and Scout against racist Bob Ewell’s cowardly assault upon them. Bob knows that Atticus proved the truth about Tom Robinson to the entire town; Atticus unraveled the lie that Bob and his daughter, Mayella, stitched together, and Bob hates Atticus for upholding the truth instead of lies. Ewell stalks Jem and Scout instead of his real target, Atticus, and he damages them. Jem’s arm never hangs straight and true again while Scout grows older instantly, her innocence about the safety of her hometown ripped from her that autumn night.

Three children, thinking their worst enemy to be an odd recluse who lives next door, lose their innocence after they bear witness to the loss of one good, decent African-American falsely accused. The children see that below the kindly faces of their Maycomb neighbors lies hatred, cruelty, and the will to kill in order to preserve their own false sense of superiority.

Jem and Scout come of age in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel. Their quest to unmask the monster in Boo Radley is not their true destination after all. Instead Jem and Scout traverse terrain that exposes the true monster in Maycomb: racism. More important, they learn to emulate their father, a man who began the fight for right and good even though he knew he would most likely lose. Atticus pursued justice in spite of the odds against his convictions and personal feelings. He persevered nobly by empathizing with both the accusers and the accused, and he taught his children to strive for the same nobility.

Reading Challenge:

If you have never read To Kill a Mockingbird, do not pass Go and collect your $200. Take the Reading Railroad directly to your nearest bookstore, online or on concrete. Buy a copy and read it. You will want to read it again and again.

Writing Challenge:

Visit Read about the characters who demonstrate courage and/or compassion, then tell the story of someone you know who is both courageous and compassionate.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Recently I asked an online group with a passion for grammar about the phrases all of a sudden and all of the sudden. I believe that using “the” instead of “a” is silly, awkward and inappropriate. The group members who replied agree with me. But please understand, both phrases have a nice one-word substitute: suddenly. It’s a good thing!