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to kill a mockingbird at 50

Last month, as I sang my way across the West to promote my latest CD, Intimate, I enjoyed the company of one constant companion - the formidable novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Gone are those old, post-concert evenings: tequila, partying, nailing bread to the clubhouse wall and setting it on fire to produce toast. At 56, my idea of bliss after a three-hour set in Penticton, B.C., is curling up with a classic novel.

Well, bliss might be the wrong word. Because I was shocked to discover, re-reading the book decades after gobbling it up on a lawn chair in the backyard of my childhood home in Don Mills, Ont., that it was making me an emotional wreck.

At 11, I was nauseated by the racism leaping off the pages, particularly because my cousins in North Carolina were among the first black students to be integrated into a previously whites-only Southern public school and I was worried sick for their safety.

Now, what unsettles me most isn't the overarching theme of prejudice - it's the eerie, intimate, sometimes painful similarities between the Finch family and my own.

Atticus, as so many of us know from reading Mockingbird in school or seeing the film, is a lawyer branded a "nigger lover" for defending a black man wrongly accused of raping a woman who is white. As a result, his children - the wildly precocious Scout and her equally perspicacious older brother Jem - suffer the vicious backlash of an enraged town, to the point where their lives are endangered.

My own father, human-rights pioneer and black historian Daniel G. Hill III, was branded a "commie" when he became the first director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in the 1960s - trust me, as close to being called a "nigger lover" in the American South as you could get at that time.

Indeed, we three Hill kids faced much hostility because of our father's outspokenness. We were often ordered not to answer the phone, our line being flooded with death threats every time our dad rocked the status quo with new human-rights legislation. And, not unlike Scout's dad, my father was constantly accosted by neighbours who accused him of destroying their "democratic rights," specifically the right to employ or rent to whomever they wanted.

"If I want only white tenants, that's my business," they opined. "The government should keep its nose out of my private affairs."

And damned if I didn't relate to Scout's disillusionment at school. When she enters Grade 1, she's excoriated by her teachers - basically for being too smart - and is sternly advised to tell her father to stop reading to her, lest it interfere with her learning. The Finch children are what author Malcolm Gladwell calls "outliers": They read too much, think too hard, invent suspiciously imaginative games and elaborate dramatic plays.

The Hill kids, the only biracial children in our part of town - my dad is black, my mom is white - were similarly suspect for the crime of "thinking too hard and being too darned analytical." My siblings were accused of "overachieving," which according to their teachers was a serious psychological issue. "No way any teacher would say this if Hill kids were blond and blue-eyed!" my dad had thundered back, his bad-ass black voice scaring the bejesus out of them.

Writers weigh in

For all my pre-teen outrage at the prejudice in Lee's book, though, my personal experience (and the blow-by-blow accounts of discrimination of all kinds from my parents) has somewhat inured me by now to the horrors of white-on-black hatred in Lee's book. What really crushed my heart this time around? Scout and Jem grew up in a motherless household.

We Hill children had our own period of motherlessness. My mom was hospitalized in the mid-sixties for an unbearably long stretch, with no mention as to if, or when she'd come home. Meanwhile, we three kids took on all the household chores - dad was busy building up the Human Rights Commission during the day and faithfully visiting mom at night.

For the record, my mom, now 82, is healthy, feisty, brilliant and, outside of my wife, the first person I turn to for advice and guidance. But the absence of Scout and Jem's mother brought back deeply painful memories, often to the point where I'd find myself weeping silently, as I clung to Mockingbird each night, my voice (and my emotions) wrung raw from late-night concerts and interviews.

Maybe because Mockingbird was ripping my heart out when I least suspected it, I found myself frequently focusing on the book's flaws (nothing like being hyper-analytical to throw a damp towel over your emotions). And there are flaws. The book's major misstep: the wincingly stereotypical depiction of Calpurnia, the black maid and caregiver to the Finch family.

Stern yet affectionate, selfless in her devotion, blessed with a folksy yet distinctly unintellectual sensibility, she's the archetypal Non-threatening Negro, a sort of literary Aunt Jemima - the type of character that reassures liberal whites that negroes are just fine, so long as they know their place. I suspect that Lee, by inventing the "perfect black woman" was trying to compensate for all the negative stereotypes hurled at blacks at the time she was writing and re-writing the novel that would go on to change her life as much as those who would read it.

Even though Lee's naively patronizing portrayal of Calpurnia infuriated me, I couldn't stay angry for long. Over and over, she'd mollify me with her surgical deconstruction of a Southern town and her astonishing ability to slip under the skin of those three ever-lovable children. Hands down, Lee's portrayal of Scout, Jem and Dill is the best part of the novel.

Most of all though, she reels me back in with the unspoken message of the book.

Yes, it's a book about racism, classism and knee-jerk fear of anything resembling the unknown. And yes, only J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye catches the ruminations, disaffections and alienations of a young person with the same searing eye.

But this is also a novel about family. About the fierce loyalty of Scout and her older brother. About the love the children feel for their father. About Atticus's absolute acceptance of his children's unfettered curiosity.

It made me think, one more wrenching time, about my own family.

It also left me with some small hope - that despite society's unspeakable cruelties, there remains, at the very core of human existence, unconditional love. The beauty of Mockingbird is that the longing for human connection and random acts of kindness keeps popping up, always when you least expect it.

Dan Hill's most recent recording is the album Intimate. He's also the author of I Am My Father's Son: A Memoir of Love and Forgiveness.

Hill joins filmmaker Clement Virgo, Toronto District School Board trustee Josh Matlow and Indigo Books & Music's Jennifer Shannon for a discussion about To Kill A Mockingbird in Toronto on Thursday. For details, visit

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