How to Kill a Mockingbird, a Longing for Belonging, and the Power of Story

A Strange Introduction to Boo Radley

The autumn I was 12, my big brother, Emmanuel, invented a name for our neighbor across the street: Boo Radley. 

The man’s name was actually Doug. Although in his late thirties, he still lived with his mother. Doug had narrow eyes and a strange, perpetual smile.

We had been Doug’s neighbors for about a year before Emmanuel’s uncalled-for christening. We had heard, little by little, stories about Doug. He had spent some time either in a mental institution or in prison.

Other, more disturbing details about his earlier years might or might not have been true. His dark eyes seemed to be watching from his front porch whenever I ventured outside.

When Emmanuel first referred to Doug as Boo Radley, our mom made a mock-stern face although her eyes betrayed hidden laughter at my brother’s wit. She told Emmanuel he shouldn’t use that name again.

Of course, that intrigued me.

“Who’s Boo Radley?” I asked. My brother walked away. I asked my mom the question again.

“A character in a book.” Of course, I had to know the name of the book. To Kill a Mockingbird. I learned that my sister, Gin, and Emmanuel had read the book in a summer school English class.

The next time I visited the library, I brought the novel home. Not so much to know who Boo Radley was, though I did want to discover why Emmanuel had made Doug his namesake.

It wasn’t even so much to read that novel; every week I brought home a stack of ten-or-so books from the library. By reading this book, I wanted an excuse to enter the conversation the next time my brother used the term Boo Radley.

I wanted to enter that world.

The world my siblings shared.

I had just started ninth grade. My older brother and two of my older sisters were attending Clovis High. Our oldest sister had already graduated and moved away from home.

I had opted to stick with home schooling. It was all I had ever known and I felt comfortable with it, but I missed day-to-day life with my older siblings. I looked for ways to find an avenue into the world they navigated.

Although I wouldn’t have understood these terms to use back then, I wanted to be accepted.

I wanted to belong.

The Sweetest Longing of Story

Instead, through To Kill a Mockingbird, I entered Scout’s world. I saw the old town of Maycomb through her coming-of-age eyes.

Finally, in the last pages of the novel, I saw the story through Boo Radley’s eyes, as Scout’s perspective momentarily adopts the view of her reclusive neighbor.

I read the book in autumn, which was slowly approaching after a too-long summer. In Fresno, summer seems to last 10 months or more, and the autumn maybe a week or two.

Something about my 12th autumn was magical. Watching the leaves change, looking out at my own front yard tree through Boo Radley’s and Scout’s gaze, made me feel a strange blend of magic and mystery and longing.

I had never been so strongly affected by a book as I was that autumn.

C. S. Lewis, in an indefatigable description, once wrote, “It was when I was happiest that I longed most . . . The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing . . . to find the place where all the beauty came from.”

For me, those sweetest longings often arise from books.

I have a feeling I’m not the only one.

I don’t know that I ever told my big brother that I read To Kill a Mockingbird. My mom must have known that I had read it. She usually glanced through the books I chose from the library to make sure I wasn’t adopting tastes too dark for my parents’ comfort.

I wondered if my sister and brother felt that same swing of magic and mystery that I had when reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

But I was too afraid to ask.

Like there was some divide I could not cross because I had not been invited.

It felt that I navigated the waters of those early teen years alone, often finding my way by finding myself within some story or another.

I don’t think reading was my escape so much as it was my hope. To discover some world where I was welcome. Some realm where I could be me . . .  whoever that was.

The Continuing Search for Belonging

Jessica and I reading, with some of our favorite stories between us. Summer 2016.

Sometimes it feels like I’m still trying to discover those things. An odd feeling for a now-grown woman, a wife, a mother of three children.

Odd the impression that rises at times; still trying to find that world where I’ll be accepted.

My mom watched my kids one Friday while I worked.

As I swung by my parent’s house to pick them up, my daughter, Jessica, approached me. “Maca said I could read How to Kill a Mockingbird.”

Maca is the name my kids use for my mom. It began when Jessica was not quite two and I was seven months pregnant with Allen.

Our little-but-growing family was visiting my parents from India that summer. Jessica couldn’t pronounce Grandma. It came out as Maca, Grandpa came out as Paca, and the names stuck.

“Oh yeah, that. Can I borrow it from Maca?”

“You don’t need to,” I told her. “I have the book.” I had found it last year at a used-book sale. When I had seen it among scores of books all being sold for a quarter each, or five bucks a bag, I had to pick it up. I had to read it again.

I had to experience that enchantment I had felt as a child-turning-teen.

My daughter hasn’t read it yet . . . but she will. I wonder what she will think of it.

I hope she’ll invite me into her world, her experience, as she reads the story.

Jessica reads as though the world of Fahrenheit 451 is rapidly approaching.

I don’t usually read middle-grade fantasy novels. It’s been a while since I had read books where the main protagonist is under 15 and the supporting characters include wizards, dragons, and raggants.

But reading this genre has been surprisingly refreshing.

And reading alongside my daughter, nothing short of sublime, the way we can share a single phrase from one of the books and know exactly what the other person is talking about.

We are currently reading The Lord of the Rings together, and are just past the point when Frodo and Samwise Gamgee encounter Faramir.

Something about reading the same books has brought my daughter and me into each other’s world like never before. It is something I treasure.

An Unexpected Party from the World of Story

When Jessica turned twelve, I threw her an unexpected party.

Not a surprise party, but an unexpected party. A merging of Bilbo’s “unexpected journey” in The Hobbit and his “long expected party” 60 or so years later in The Fellowship of the Ring.

I had wanted to throw her this party a year before, on her 11th birthday. After all, it was on Bilbo’s 111th (or eleventy-first) birthday that he threw his long-expected party. But I didn’t.

That year had been my first semester at Fresno State University. I had no idea what to expect. I had registered for twenty units. One friend said I was crazy.

So I cut out extraneous adventures that season, including birthday parties – unexpected or not.

Jessica’s unexpected party was a rare, but satisfying, success. My husband, Dan, took the kids out in the morning to Blackbeard’s. As soon as they left, I began preparing.

Actually, I had begun preparing in July, when I ordered 52 feet of crushed velvet online – blue, red, and the perfect green-gray – and began stitching Elvish cloaks.

After all, when unexpected guests started arriving, they needed to look the part.

I had also been trying my hand at Elvish penmanship, putting to paper some favorite Tolkien quotes. I ended up printing most of the quotes in papyrus font.

With the kids out of the house, I lit a candle and burned the edges of the papers until my throat burned and my clothes smelled like I had made an unexpected visit to Mount Doom.

I pulled out my wood-burning kit and searched the garage for bits of wood I could use as signposts to Lothlorien, Mordor, and Erebor.

I hid the decorations before Dan and the kids returned, waiting to pull everything out and hang it up last minute before guests started arriving.

That afternoon, Jessica emerged from her room to the sight of the quotes and signposts and Hobbit-style snacks. I presented Jessica with a gray-green cloak and pinned it to her with a Lothlorien leaf.

The unexpected guests – family and her two best friends – started arriving.

For days afterward, Jessica wore that cloak. She asked if she could put the Tolkien quotes up in her room. She needed more space in her room for all of it, she told me.

It wouldn’t be remiss to say I felt proud for getting it right on that birthday.

But more than that, I felt like I was fixing something, bridging a wordless gulf of loneliness that so often darkens those not-quite-teen years.

Loneliness … and Needing a Story to Share

Photo by Keenan Constance on

Not too long ago, my mom talked about going through deep loneliness at the age of 11 or 12.

She spoke of it as though it was a good thing, a time that helped her develop deep thoughts about life and her place in it. She told me it helped her get a better grasp on God’s presence even in the loneliness.

I can’t remember exactly why my mom told me about this, but I do remember it partially explained why I felt she had backed off from my life when I was a similar age and going through my own deep alone-ness.

At the time, I had thought she hadn’t cared. I thought no one did.

One winter evening that I was 12 years old, I went out in the neighborhood to walk the dog. I returned late. Didn’t want to return at all.

I felt as though no one cared whether or not they ever saw me again.

I slipped in the back door and heard my oldest sister – who was visiting from Santa Barbara – ask where I was. She asked our mom, “Aren’t you worried about her out there alone?”

I heard my mom reply I was fine.

I wanted to jump in on the conversation. Why wasn’t she worried? I was alone. Always alone. But I slipped back outside silently and a few minutes later came in loudly through the front door so they would know I was home.

I think, during certain seasons, we are far too much alone.

Of course, we do need to develop our own persons, our sense of self. But many times, what we need is the knowledge that someone walks the same path that we do, feels the same emotions.

Jessica is that age now, the age I was when I felt on even playing ground with a slug. But we love the same stories. And she has a few friends who compare book reviews with her and suggest authors and titles.

They welcome her into their world.

They welcome me too, and I feel it’s somewhere we all belong.

Some secret world where lands like Narnia and Middle Earth and Ashtown and Aerwiar merge and characters blend with our own and speak to us something about the lives we live now.

I couldn’t say what they are speaking.

Maybe nothing more than a wordless feeling that we all walk together.

When Jessica drops phrases from books we’ve both read into emails she sends me or conversations we have, it’s almost a sharing of longing and joy.

A sharing of each other’s unique and oh-so-separate worlds – the doorway into which is somehow, magically, stories.

Sharing the Sweetest Longing … Sharing Stories

Photo by Wendy van Zyl on

When I was 12 and read To Kill a Mockingbird, I read the story not only to enter Scout’s and Jem’s and Boo Radley’s world, but to enter the world of my family.

To understand what they were talking and joking about; to enter the conversation, maybe even to offer something myself.

Or something of myself.

One busy Saturday, my daughter called me over to her homework desk. She wasn’t doing homework, but she showed me the synopsis of a story she is writing. It is titled “Wardens of the Wild” and involves a young character who can speak to wild animals.

When Jessica asked me what I thought about it, I felt a strange and welcome feeling.

Privileged to be invited into that part of my daughter’s world. Her heart.

When she told me she couldn’t wait to start writing her novel, I felt like it was the continuing of some universal, personal, beautiful story.

Note: I wrote this personal essay several years ago, in the winter of 2016, I believe.

I plan to post a creative essay or story from time to time, as a change from my more informational posts. I thought this would be a fitting one to start with, as it speaks to the power of story and the longing for belonging that I believe we all share.

I hope you enjoyed it!