There are very few books that I would claim changed me but this is one of them. The novel by Harper Lee was also one of the few books of the many that my secondary school made me read that I actually enjoyed. Everything was stacked against it: it was the 70s; the book was set in the American South, a country I had never visited; it had themes of race relations that I had never considered before. Yet, the set book for my English Literature O Level affected me so much that it changed my life.
The story is well known but to my sixteen year old self the idea of injustice stretched as far as thinking things in my own life were not fair. After studying this book my eyes were opened to a wider world of injustice. Not only that but the United States, which had been the place of our teenage dreams, was shown to be a country of more dimensions than I had previously known.
Jem was my favourite character and in the movie I made in my head as I read it, I was Jem. Even though I had a younger brother and not a sister and even though my father was nothing like the wise and thoughtful Atticus, I wanted to be Jem.
Although the book has been famous for years I had not come across it before it was placed before me by a teacher. I remember well The New Windmill Series edition by Heinemann. My parents did not know of it either. It reminds me of the essential role schools and teachers play in opening eyes and minds in young people. It is no surprise that, when Education Secretary, Conservative Michael Gove was so dismissive of the idea of the book’s place as a set text. His opposition only confirms for me the importance of the novel for today’s teenagers.
I had to give back my copy of the book at the end of the year, once the exams had been taken so the copy I have today is the one I bought when at university, a nondescript cover on a Pan edition which I only bought so as to own a copy and have it on my bookshelf. It is there still.
Although I loved studying English Literature, most set texts had the life squeezed out of them through tedious deconstruction. This book survived it all. Interestingly, although I can remember exam questions for the other works I studied, I cannot remember the questions about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. It really did transcend its set book status.
It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?