I was still in college when To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1960. I remember it had a kind of an electrifying effect on this country; this was a time when there were a lot of good books coming out. The sixties were very ripe. We were reading a lot about race, and we were reading what they call literary fiction now. William Styron was writing, James Baldwin was writing essays, and then this book just ricocheted around the country.
I had always been interested in race and racial justice, but mostly it was with my nose pressed up against the glass, looking at the South from a long way away. Because I lived in construction towns, we had a lot of workers who came from the South. They were all white, and, sorry to say, a number of them were pretty redneck. It just didn’t comport with my family’s view of how Negroes should be treated. But I did have all this curiosity about it.
When I want to get someone’s attention, I’ll say, “Hey, Boo.”
And when I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was so struck by the universality of small towns. I had lived in small towns in South Dakota, and I knew then, reading about Atticus, not just the pressures that he was under, but the magnifying glass that he lived in—he was the upstanding legislator and lawyer but also was part of the fabric of that town—and then the complexity of the issues that came before him and the way it divided the community. All this takes place in a very small environment. People who live in big cities, I don’t think, have any idea of what the pressures can be like in a small town when there’s something as controversial as that going on. It’s tough. So it stuck with me for a long time.
Later, of course, it was hard for me to separate the book from the movie, because you’d see the movie a lot, and then you’d remember passages and go back and look at the book again.
But it was one of those memorable pieces of literary fiction that came along at an impressionable time in my life, and also in the country’s life. Dr. King had already started the movement at that point, we were paying attention on national television every night on the network news to what was going on in the South, and this book spoke to us.
I knew people like that, who were willing to stand up in these kinds of communities against the conventional wisdom of the time. Racism didn’t stop at the Mason-Dixon Line. A lot of those same attitudes were in the communities where I lived, way north, on the Great Plains. And yet there were brave people, men and women, who would speak out against them, in churches, in the business community, or wherever. But for Harper Lee to be there in the epicenter, if you will, of all this, to be so eloquent in how she described it, it shows such great courage in how she describes it. She was in that pantheon, I think, of people who helped us get liberated from racism in this country. I’ve been doing some work on the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, and one of the most telling lines that I hear from early pioneers in the movement is: “We had liberated not just black people, we liberated white people.” I think that Harper Lee helped liberate white people with that book.
Scout is irresistible, she’s just irresistible. And later I became the father of daughters, and I had those kinds of conversations with my own children—they had great curiosity and their kind of tomboy attitudes, and they were tough on me. They would come to me, just like Scout did. “Why are you doing this? Have you thought this through?” I think that they could identify with her. I still have letters that my daughters wrote to me about things that I thought they should do, and they had their own minds made up about why they were going to do it. And they were good lawyer’s briefs. I like to think that as Scout grew older, that she would have evolved in the same way as a teenager. We hear her voice, obviously. I think there is a really distinct relationship between fathers and daughters, and one of the things that happens, if there’s a mother around, is that when the girls get to be around thirteen, they go to war with their mothers, and then the fathers are sanctuaries in some ways or the intermediaries.
So Scout will always be in my mind when I think about this book, about the whole idea of this little towheaded kid running around, sitting up in the balcony of the courthouse with the Negroes as they watch the trial unfold, questioning her father about why he was representing the defendant in this case, and the kind of taunting that she received at school.
What I thought, when I went back and read those passages again, there was this absence of piety, which I think makes the book really honest. There was self-doubt. Atticus knew that he wasn’t a perfect man. He tried as best he could to give Scout the big context of what he was doing and why he was doing it. In her youthful innocence, she was asking all the right questions. So it’s no wonder to me why it’s so popular as a book and it will be for a long time.
I was particularly taken with when Scout went to him after she’d been taunted at school that her daddy was just nothing but an n-lover, and she asked him why he was doing this, and I still have the same reaction: I think, Oh well, oh, now here it comes, because this is what I must do. And it wasn’t that. It was more complicated than that. You can see him working his way through why he was going to take this case, and he couldn’t hold his head up unless he took this case. And he knew that there would be consequences for him, and that conversation, the dialogue between the two of them, is sophisticated in its own way, and yet it’s still between a father and a daughter. I’ve always loved that, for all those reasons: the personal relationships, the meaning of being a lawyer, what it’s like to be in a small town. Then, of course, when you have a black defendant wrongly accused in the 1930s in the white South, there was no more explosive issue than that one.
Another one of my very favorite passages in the book is a small one, but I’ve always loved the literary construct of it. We have the mysterious figure, Boo, who’s living next door. And then of course there’s the climactic episode: Jem is in bed, he’s been hurt, beaten up. What’s going to happen to him? And Scout goes in to see her brother. And there standing in the shadows is this mysterious neighbor. And she turns and says, “Hey, Boo.” I just love that moment. It’s such a personal connection, and she’s absolutely unafraid of him, which is what I love. And again, to go back to the small-town culture, every town has a Boo. People don’t know how to approach Boo in those small towns, in most instances. Scout did. I have used that phrase countless times in my own life; when I want to get someone’s attention, I’ll say, “Hey, Boo.”
Tom Brokaw was born in 1940 in Webster, South Dakota. He is an NBC News special correspondent and the author of The Greatest Generation (1998), A Long Way Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland (2002), and Boom! Voices of the Sixties (2006).