In my mind's eye, whenever someone mentions Harper Lee, the image that appears is not of the author herself, but of a nine-year-old girl named Scout. Whereas Lee was reclusive, her character Scout lived with us all, shouted her opinions, stuck her nose in everyone's business, and demanded to be noticed.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my cherished books. I read it first as a child, under a tree in a park with scabs all over my knee and my hair tangled up, during one of those endless summers of youth.
When Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, she found a way to inhabit the values and injustices inherent in the adult world of her epoch through the first-person voice of Scout.
Writing in the voice of a child means you are inhabiting a point of view where no action is taken for granted, but whose motives are questioned. And no object is ordinary: a bottle cap is a treasure, a toad is filled with grace. Scout's voice, so assured and wonderful and simple and funny, does this. To be a child is to be simultaneously in a state of wonder and heartbreak, of magic and betrayal.
The use of a child's point of view also allowed the book to be more forceful in its message. The morality of the book is simple, not because it is childish, but because it is child-like. What is the value of innocence? It teaches us that right and wrong are two actual things, and not cultural constructs. They are innate, and we are born intuitively knowing them. They are not taught to us. Rather they have to, in many cases, be unlearned so that atrocities can be committed.
The difference between right and wrong can perhaps only be captured by a child's logic. And this is the moral framework of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Every childhood also has a feeling of immortality to it. We have this sense when we are young that summer lasts forever. I will always be nine years old, sitting on a porch in Alabama with my young friends Harper Lee and Truman Capote, trying to figure out why the world is unjust and filled with cruelty, why we are ourselves and not someone else, who we will become when we grow up, and where our mothers have run off to. You are welcome to join us.
Heather O'Neill is the Giller Prize-nominated author of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and Daydreams of Angels. Her new novel, Romeo Hotel , will be published in September.