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.
~Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
I’ve been home sick a few days this week. The first night I was worthless, shivering under the covers with a high fever and sleeping for nearly 16 straight hours. But now that the worst has (hopefully) passed I’ve been binge reading. Yesterday I finished re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
I rarely re-read books, but with Harper Lee’s new novel coming out this summer it seemed like a good idea. I don’t remember exactly when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, but this second reading was a profoundly different experience.
I still cried for Tom Robinson, but I cried almost everywhere else too. I was misty-eyed and tingly-nosed through the whole damn book! From Scout getting that beating she just didn’t deserve to Jem refusing to leave his father’s side at the jail… I was a blubbery mess.
I still marveled at Atticus Finch’s courage and convictions, but this time I just thought he was a really good dad. When I finished the book, I wanted to be that kind of parent. I felt inspired.
Wouldn’t you know at dinner that night I got my very first chance?
The kids were talking about Nemo, a giant bully of a dog who lives down the road. They actually call him “Meano” and it’s not entirely unwarranted. The first run-in with this animal was admittedly our fault, but traumatic none-the-less. The kids were bopping down the road with their new puppy, Tess, last fall. She noticed Nemo lying in his yard and thought he looked like a big, fluffy playmate. She tugged, the kids dropped her leash, and before they knew it Tess was bolting up Nemo’s driveway. Let’s just say Nemo didn’t like that too much. He grabbed her by the neck, dragged her into the ditch, and (in Nemo’s owner’s words) “immobilized” her.
Sam and Maggie’s shrieks could have brought the bears straight out of hibernation. Tess was immobilized by Nemo, but my children were in the middle of the road immobilized by fear. I flew out the front door and watched in horror as Nemo’s owner pulled his dog off our puppy and trotted away without a word.
Thankfully Tess was fine, but Sam and Maggie were still hysterically shrieking. I was trying to calm them when Nemo’s owner came back – with his brutus dog on leash this time. “I feel terrible that your children were so scared,” he said. He wanted the kids to pet Nemo, but this dog clearly did not want to be touched. He told us about Nemo: his breed, his training, and explained that he is very protective. (Ya think?!) He claimed Nemo would never bite, but is only trained to immobilize. He kept giving Nemo commands in German, followed by “NOT ASKING!” whenever Nemo resisted. Nemo was lunging at Tess the entire time, so I thanked him for coming by and got into the safety of our house as quickly as possible.
Since then, that dog tries to attack Tess every time we walk down the road. He has broken his line to chase after her, even when we are on the opposite side of the street. It’s gotten to the point where if Nemo is outside, the kids are not allowed to walk past the house. Trust me, this isn’t a rule I worry about them breaking.
Before we went on vacation this winter, Sam and Maggie warned the dog sitter about “Meano.” They launched into the entire saga, and she listened patiently. Sure enough, when we were in Hawaii I got a worrisome text from her:
“So I was walking Tess, and the big dog your kids call Meano pulled his stake out of the ground and came for her. It was terrifying. I think the only reason it didn’t go for her was because I kept standing in the way. He kept lunging for Tess tho, snapping at her. It was scary. The owner heard me shouting and just slooowwwly walked out to get his bully of a dog. Ugh. I’m just shaking, I thought he was going to go for her.”
So fast forward to dinner last night. Maggie was mad. Every day after school half the neighborhood comes over and all the kids play outside. Tess is like one of the children, chasing bikes and running after soccer balls. Well, yesterday Tess couldn’t play part of the time because Nemo was off leash in his yard. We didn’t want to risk a brawl, so we brought her inside for a while.
“I’d like to kill that dog!!” Maggie fumed.
So there it was, my moment to respond. Should I validate her anger, or admonish her vengeance? What would Atticus do?
There were plenty of challenging neighbors in To Kill a Mockingbird, and that nasty old Mrs. Dubose came to mind. “Plain hell” is how Scout described her. She’d scream at Jem and Scout every time they walked by, but when she started insulting Atticus Jem couldn’t handle it any longer. He trashed her garden in a fit of rage, and the ensuing punishment was brutal: he had to sit at Mrs. Dubose’s bedside and read to her for several hours each afternoon.
By the end of the book we learn a little more about nasty Mrs. Dubose, and I wondered if there might be more to Meano as well.
“You remember that first time Nemo went after Tess?” I asked Maggie. Of course she did. “Remember how his owner said Nemo is trained to protect him? I’ve been thinking about that. We don’t know that man. We don’t know his story. What if something sad or scary has happened in his life, and he needs to be protected? We just don’t know.
“But I do know you. I know you’re mad at that dog, and scared of it. You worry he could hurt Tess. But you love animals so much – especially dogs – and I know you would never really wish it dead.”
I hoped not anyway.
For once Maggie was quiet. She shook her head and looked at her plate, and who knows what was rolling through her crazy little mind.
I’m convinced Harper Lee created one of the greatest literary heroes in all of fiction with Atticus Finch. He may not be real, but he’s still a role model.
Harper Lee is now 88, and her late sister said she can barely see or hear any longer. I hope those who discovered her second novel, Go Set a Watchmen, have as much integrity as Atticus Finch and are truly following her wishes by publishing it.
After all, it’s a sin to hurt a mockingbird.