Yesterday, I learned that author Harper Lee had died. I’ve never met her, and actually know very little about her personal life, but she gave to us a literary gift in To Kill A Mockingbird that will outlive us all.
I first read the book in high school, when soon-to-be adult views on the world are taking form. I was struck by it, haunted by it. What stayed with me was the profound call to action for empathy.
If you’ve heard me speak, you know I’m a great believer in the power of fiction for young people to be the boot camp for empathy. I dedicate a large section to my school visits to this topic, and always cite Harper Lee.
In my latest books, the Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie, I specifically channel Harper Lee by placing her book into my main character’s (undead) hands. Adam Meltzer, on OCD zombie, has a particular aversion to Atticus’ worldview: “One time Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them.”
And later, when he complains to his school librarian, she urges him to stick with the book; calling Mockingbird “mind-opening, soul-expanding.”
In the end, Adam learns about empathy through the parallel experiences of reading the book and his own undead escapades. We, the reader, finally internalise Atticus’ wisdom of “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”…even if that skin is decomposing.
Thank you Harper Lee for that gift.